While David cameron and Theresa May, the Home Secretary, were at pains yesterday to praise the police for their valour and determination in standing up to gangs of looters, they are relying on the force to hold the line against the rioters just at the moment that many demoralised officers feel undervalued by the Government in the face of job losses, an assault on their terms and conditions and an increasing workload.
Police funding will be slashed by up to 20 per cent – equivalent to £2bn – over four years, under austerity measures announced by the Government. The Met alone faces a cut of £543m, which could lead to the numbers of officers in the capital falling from 32,500 to 30,600.
Ministers insist the cash can be saved through cutting red tape and improving efficiency without affecting numbers of officers on the streets – a claim ridiculed by the rank-and-file Police Federation, which forecasts that police numbers across the country could drop by up to 40,000. The thin blue line is being stretched even further as the police brace for an attack on their pay, perks and pensions by ministers.
The cuts in manning will raise fundamental questions of how the Met can be expected to cope with fewer officers when it has been so outnumbered by rioters this week. In parts of the capital police were forced to watch from a distance as mobs ran riot and in some areas could not even protect fire crews sent to blazing buildings.
Ms May yesterday made clear she would not back down over plans for deep cuts to police resources, but the political pressure for a rethink will grow over coming days. Simon Hughes, the deputy Lib Dem leader, said he had pressed Nick Clegg over whether the Government should "proceed with the levels of reductions in budgets of the police". He said: "If there is not the money to train police to use the riot equipment and to pay the overtime, then we need to reappraise that."
Labour will hammer home the same message in tomorrow's emergency Commons debate on the riots – and could find support from Tories who fear the cuts are undermining their reputation as the party of law and order.
Paul McKeever, the federation's chairman, told The Independent: "I'm sure the Government will be reflecting on what's happening and giving the police a much higher priority in their thinking."
At the time of its ultimate test, the Met is in turmoil. It is without a full-time leader after last month's resignation of Sir Paul Stephenson as Commissioner at the height of the furore over newspaper phone hacking.
When the flames have finally died out, there will also be questions over how it failed to foresee the explosion of criminality.
Lack of top black officers 'has got to change'
The chairman of the Metropolitan Black Police Association last night said that the Metropolitan Police does not reflect London's ethnic communities.
Bevan Powell said that there were not enough black police officers at a senior level in Britain's biggest force, a statistic that "has got to change". But he also urged the British public not to turn the London riots into a "race issue".
"At senior levels, the Metropolitan Police service absolutely does not reflect London," he said. "The young have to be able to see that they can fulfil their aspirations at the top levels of the force."
He said there are lessons for communities across London that can be learnt from the riots.
"We need a re-engagement plan to bring people back together. Communities need to work together to show young people that there is more to life than this. But I want to make it clear. This is not a race issue. We have seen people rioting that are black, white and Asian.
"It is really essential now that the police are proactive in meeting and listening to what the needs are within the communities."
He added that although rubber bullets "are not the answer", police needed to be given "whatever measures they need" to react to the growing unrest.