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Cameron can win the riots debate but only if he stops Labour from outflanking him on policing

By Tim Montgomerie
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One absolute must read this morning and it's the Bagehot column in The Economist. The author notes that riots tend to benefit centre right parties:

"Margaret Thatcher won elections after Brixton and Tottenham burned in the 1980s. American cities and university campuses were laid waste in the late 1960s; Richard Nixon was duly elected and re-elected. Chaos in French banlieues in 2005 seemed to work in favour of Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential election 18 months later."

The column goes on to mention specific ways in which the circumstances today might benefit David Cameron:

  • "Tories will have an easier time making their already-popular arguments about crime: that well-meaning efforts to liberalise the police have gone too far; that weakness is more provocative to miscreants than heavy-handedness; that for all the talk of a “slippery slope” from minor breaches of liberty by the state to outright authoritarianism, the opposite journey—from laxity to lawlessness—is steeper and scarier."
  • "The left is imploring the public to consider the underlying causes of the riots. They should be careful what they wish for. Voters might conclude that the deep-seated causes are not poverty, discrimination and austerity—the riots took place in a country whose government currently spends half of its national income—but welfare dependency, broken homes and moral nihilism."
  • "Outside 10 Downing Street on August 10th, [Cameron] described areas of Britain as “not just broken but frankly sick” and called for a “clearer code of values and standards that we expect people to live by”. Liberals, understandably, will worry about all this. But deep down, this is who Mr Cameron really is. After the riots, it might also be what his country wants."
I agree with all of this. In his plans for reform of schools, welfare and the police Mr Cameron has an agenda for this moment. He also has an agenda to support the family if he can get it past his libertine Coalition partners. I particularly welcome the leading role given to my old boss, Iain Duncan Smith, in coordinating government efforts to tackle gang culture - of which more later today...

The handling of the last 72 hours since Cameron returned from Italy have been largely sure-footed and I agree with John Rentoul. I didn't think recalling parliament was a good idea but it worked.

Nonetheless there have been some missteps...

  • The biggest misstep is on police numbers. Ed Miliband may have been statesmanlike in his response to the PM in the Commons but, quite sensibly, he left the rottweiler politics to his backbenchers. One after another, starting with Jack Straw, Labour MPs pounded the PM on cuts to the police frontline. The Tory message that you can cut police budgets without hurting police capacity is intellectually sound for the reasons set out by David Ruffley MP in a piece for today's Telegraph. But is it politically workable? I doubt it and suggested one way of countering Labour's crude focus on numbers yesterday. I spoke to a senior Tory last night and he agreed the current position was unsustainable. "Downing Street is consistently too abstract in its arguments," he reflected, "and needs a streetfighter insider Number 10 who can do the job Andy Coulson did of  making our policies fly in the tabloids."
  • Another misstep is not to have a minister always defending the government's position. I've already blogged on Number 10's failure to provide a panellist for Question Time. There was no spokesman on Channel 4 News or Newsnight either. What is Downing Street frightened of?
  • Finally I fear this clampdown on social media will backfire. Robert Halfon MP in a cool and rational manner explains why on our Comment pages. Civil libertarians have lost ground in recent days. Too many Tories got into intellectual bed with Shami Chakrabarti and took the wrong positions on CCTV and police techniques but there are good practical reasons why interference in internet freedom is dangerous.


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