Leading article: A very Liberal dilemma

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The Independent Online

It was never going to be easy for Nick Clegg to follow David Cameron and Ed Miliband in making his statement yesterday on last week's riots. The Prime Minister knew that he had to speak for those who want to see punishment visited on the rioter, and the Labour leader had decided to be the voice of reason, emphasising the importance of learning why the riots happened.

But the Deputy Prime Minister was caught between the twin dangers of making the Government appear split if he did not take a hard line and alienating yet more Liberal Democrat voters if he did. In the circumstances, he did a reasonable job of steering between Scylla and Charybdis. His promise that former rioters will be marched forth in orange outfits to clear up their own mess will satisfy the public's expectation that wrongdoing deserves punishment, without pointlessly locking up petty offenders in overcrowded prisons. The scheme to get released prisoners straight into work is also a constructive crime prevention measure, if it comes off.

But Mr Clegg's announcement about how the Government is to investigate the events is a curious hybrid. There will be a panel whose work will be well publicised, hearing from the victims. This will be a worthy, cathartic exercise, but one which is not likely to tell us much.

Meanwhile, professional researchers commissioned by the Cabinet Office will set about trying to find out exactly why thousands of youths went on an orgy of looting. To do that, they will have to interview the people who know, namely the rioters themselves. Mindful of the political sensitivities, the Government will not want to draw attention to the fact that it is talking to young hooligans, so while the victims' panel conducts its exercise in good social relations, the real investigations will carry on in semi-secrecy.