UK Politics

Riot Response: Is This David Cameron's Katrina Moment?

10 Aug 2011 at 21:01

My honest view is that David Cameron’s initial response to the riots was rather pathetic. So far as I know no one, not even Denis MacShane, had called for the recall of Parliament. And yet that was the headline that came out of his Downing Street speech yesterday morning. I cannot see the point of it. All it will do is provide a platform for a lot of bluster and condemnation. If he wanted to amend the law, bring back the Riot Act, give the police emergency powers, I could understand it. But that’s not what’s being proposed. Announcing the recall of Parliament gave the impression of saying “Something must be done, but I am not sure what”.

He’s not quite there yet, but this threatens to be Cameron’s Katrina moment. The moment when the people decide that a politician doesn’t get it and is completely out of touch with their own views. It’s what both Cameron and Boris Johnson are being accused of. I interviewed Boris on LBC last night and deliberately gave him a hard time. Not because he didn’t come back until yesterday, but for not appearing to recognise that police tactics hadn’t worked and for failing to define (and he’s not alone in this) what a “robust response” means. Just increasing police numbers isn’t the solution. If you take away officers from other parts of the country, expect crime to soar there. No, it’s not quantity of policing which is the key, it’s the quality of the response. And we need to understand that it is the senior Met officers who are to blame for a complete failure to respond properly, not the politicians. Politicians don’t, and shouldn’t get involved in operational matters. But it can only have been orders from the top which ordered the softly softly response, and ordered police on the front line to stand back and watch people looting. In my book, if a crime is being committed it is the police’s job to intervene and stop it. Otherwise what’s the point of them being there at all? Scenes of police officers watching a crime scene rather than preventing it is why many people have lost confidence in the police. That’s what’s got to change.

A police officer texted my LBC show last night and tried to explain the tactic. He wrote “Property can be replaced”. Try telling that to the owner of the House of Reeves furniture store in Croydon – a family owned business which had served the people of Croydon for more than 120 years. Gone. Try telling that to the restaurant owners in West London whose businesses have been ruined. Try telling that to the butcher in Tottenham who told me last night that he has £25,000 of meat which has spoiled and isn’t covered by his insurance. Try telling that to the man who rang in to tell me that car insurance policies do not cover cars which have been burnt out.

That’s what Parliament could and should debate on Thursday – how the government can help those who through no fault of their own have had their lives ruined by the thuggery that has happened over the last few days. A compensation fund should be set up to help these people get back on their feet.

Margaret Thatcher’s first response after the Brixton (or was it Toxteth?) riots was “Those poor shopkeepers”. I wonder if David Cameron will think in the same way. He should. If not, he risks the public approbrium dished out to George W Bush after he failed to understand the scale of impact on New Orleans of Hurricane Katrina. You may think that is an exaggeration. I hope it is and that Cameron now responds to the crisis in the way I always expected him to.

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