David Cameron cut short his holiday last night to fly back to Britain to take charge of the response to the wave of riots in London.
Following three days of disturbances, he will today chair a meeting of the Government's emergency Cobra committee after deciding to abandon his summer break at an Italian villa four days early. He will be joined by senior ministers, including the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and the Home Secretary, Theresa May, and police chiefs to co-ordinate action against the wave of lawlessness.
Downing Street had earlier stressed that he was in constant touch with Whitehall officials, but his surprise decision to come back underlines the gravity with which the crisis is being treated within the Government.
The Prime Minister's move came hours after Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, bowed to criticism and scrapped his holiday in Canada to return. Senior government sources had earlier expressed incredulity that Mr Johnson had chosen to remain on vacation in British Columbia when Ms May returned early from her break in Switzerland. Tellingly, neither Mr Cameron nor Ms May spoke to the Mayor in their rounds of calls to discuss the disturbances. "There was a strong feeling that he should have announced he was coming back sooner," said a senior source in No 10.
"When you have the Home Secretary cutting short her holiday while the man who is in charge of London stays away, you have to wonder what's going on." Another said: "Anyone would think he didn't have an election to fight next year."
Mr Johnson, who is believed to have been touring the Rockies in a camper van, will arrive back in London this afternoon – probably too late for the Cobra meeting. Among those who had called for his return was Ken Livingstone who will be his Labour opponent in next year's mayoral elections.
He said: "I can't believe that, after another night of riots, the Mayor still refuses to be here. When 7/7 happened, I was in Singapore as part of the London Olympic bid. I knew I had to be back in London as quickly as possible."
But Mr Johnson's deputy Kit Malthouse insisted that he had been speaking to the Mayor "every hour or two" and said he could deal with the situation from abroad as if "he was sitting in his office".
But in a sign of the Government moving to assert its control over the situation, Downing Street released details of Ms May's meetings with Tim Godwin, the Metropolitan Police Acting Commissioner, Mr Malthouse and other senior officers. They said she had not spoken to Mr Johnson.
Speaking earlier she said: "The violence, the looting, the thuggery we've seen – this is sheer criminality. That's why I say that these people will be brought to justice: they will be made to face the consequences of their actions."
Mr Clegg, on his first day back from holiday, toured the scene of Saturday night's riots in Tottenham and also denounced the destruction he had seen. "Earlier this afternoon I saw for myself the loss and devastation caused by mindless destruction in Tottenham," he said. "Local people won't allow their community to be torn apart by a minority of thieves and troublemakers."
The Tory MP Nick de Bois, whose Enfield North constituency was hit by riots on Sunday, said he was surprised not to have been contacted either by the Mayor or the Mayor's office. But he insisted he was not dismayed by Mr Johnson's absence from the capital, adding: "The organisation is bigger than one individual."
One Tory minister said he was never surprised by the situations in which Mr Johnson found himself.