Steve Richards: Cameron must now walk a high wire

The choreography of the riots shows again how ideological ambition clashes with reality when a crisis erupts
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The Independent Online

Do not be deceived by the bland, consensual tone that permeates the current political debate on the riots. Behind the unsurprising, universal condemnation of the criminality there are deep divisions between the parties and perhaps within them. When they surface, as they will do, the dividing lines will be clearer than at any time for several decades.

In most cases, the differences were only implied during yesterday's recall of Parliament. The restraint was itself highly political. It is in the interest of no party leader or MP to appear as if they are more concerned about scoring points at a time of highly charged fear and perhaps more danger. Politics is partly about timing, and at the moment the focus is on unity and practicalities. Nonetheless, even in this early phase, there are strong hints of the intense differences between the parties.

One was stark. Like many of the precise agreements rushed through during last summer's Comprehensive Spending Review, the cuts in the police budget have become highly contentious as the glamour of making dramatic announcements switches to the hard grind of implementation. The case for efficiency savings is overwhelming, but the demand for frontline officers is likely to increase during a period of economic austerity, not least after the recent events. Already Cameron faces a powerful coalition against him that includes Labour, Boris Johnson and some of the Tory press.

The chaotic spending review conducted by a new Chancellor and departmental ministers, mostly with no previous ministerial experience, has already resulted in several U-turns. In this case the divide is specific and also ideological. In a revealing aside yesterday, Cameron expressed the hope that the post-mortem on the riots does not become a "tedious debate about resources". But however tedious he finds it, there is a powerful case that societies are more coherent and suffer lower crime rates when institutions are adequately resourced. The debate about what is adequate in terms of policing and wider provision is already marked and will become more so.

The next divide is not quite as stark, and yet goes to the heart of Cameron's view of the state and the pivotal issue of who is accountable to whom. David Miliband raised it yesterday and so, significantly, did the Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake. Both questioned why Cameron was planning to go ahead with elections for chief constables, one of the Conservatives' more radical proposals that are still in play.

Senior members of Cameron's entourage remain passionate about changing the relationship between state, providers and users of services, with the state taking a back seat. The choreography of the riots shows again how ideological ambition clashes with reality when a crisis erupts. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, was first back from holiday and Cameron soon followed. Central government had to take responsibility. The argument that a Home Secretary or Prime Minister should hand over more powers to police leaders elected on inevitably populist manifestos was never going to be easy to make and will be harder now. At the very least. the lack of consensual support extends to some Liberal Democrat MPs. Brake's intervention reflects wider concerns in his party.

The policing reforms are part of Cameron's view of what is becoming the key political term in relation to the riots. Cameron mentioned "responsibility" many times yesterday. So did Ed Miliband. But their view of what this important but flexible term means is very different. Their interpretations represent the biggest divide of all. Cameron stressed repeatedly that policies should enable individuals, parents and communities to take responsibility for their actions. Yesterday when he referred to "responsibility" he often meant the guilt of those involved. For him, responsibility is central to his view that there is such a thing as society, but it is not the same as the state.

Miliband made two additional points. He repeated his early summer soundbite that responsibility extends from the benefits office to the boardroom, but went further in stressing "we must not forget our responsibility" in providing opportunities for those who assume they have none. This deftly deployed the most fashionable term in current politics to make the case for government activity at a time when some ministers view state initiatives with a degree of disdain.

We are at an early stage of an important multi-layered debate. Cameron and Miliband are deeply aware of the risks, and this partly explains the tentative opening. They have a lot to lose. That is why Miliband stressed that he was not making excuses when seeking explanations. The danger for Labour is that the debate moves in a wholly reactionary direction in which it is accused of being "soft" on crime and as good as loses the next election.

But Miliband hopes to get to a point where there is space to highlight issues related to inequality, poverty and community when the time comes to seek deeper explanations. He has made the first moves towards the space and was wise not to leap.

For Cameron the risks are greater in the obvious sense that he is in charge at a time when, for at least one night this week, the authorities, including his government, lost control. But the risk goes much deeper and challenges once more his view of society and accountability. The real reason why he gave the go-ahead to Andrew Lansley's original NHS reforms was that, broadly, he supported their decentralising aspirations. Then he made a dramatic U-turn earlier this summer when he personally guaranteed that as Prime Minister he would make a number of commitments including the retention of waiting list targets, an act of prime ministerial centralisation.

There have also been famous U-turns in relation to some spending cuts, including proposals to privatise forests, reform sentencing and scrap school sports programmes. Given such a record in relatively calm circumstances, will there be U-turns after riots that have commanded the headlines across the world? If there are not, Cameron walks a high wire in which he risks a messy revolution in the way police are held to account and cuts in police numbers at a point when parts of Britain are more tangibly on edge. If he makes changes, a much more likely development given the pattern last year, he dilutes further his supposed defining purposes, deficit reduction and a redistribution of power.

After Cameron's long innings at the despatch box the Chancellor, George Osborne, gave a relatively upbeat view of the UK's position in the global economy in which he failed to mention that growth here is much lower than in the US and the eurozone.

The next election will be determined above all by the economy. But the related issues as to why some of England's cities erupted into lawlessness are almost as pivotal and will soon tear apart the polite, deliberately apolitical consensus on show this week. They will also test again what Cameron's leadership is for and will cast light on the Conservatism he espouses.

s.richards@independent.co.uk; twitter.com@steverichards14

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