As Riots Spread Beyond London, Cameron Tries On an Iron Fist

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s leadership is gradually being defined by the riots that have blazed across the UK — and he is determined to be portrayed as the toughest hombre in town, the man to clean up the lawless inner cities by any means necessary.

Gone is the “hug-a-hoodie” Cameron — a label stuck to him after a speech in July 2006 in which he said anti-social youngsters often needed to feel more love — and in its place is the “Hang ‘Em High” Cameron who has authorized the use of water cannon and plastic bullets to combat the rioters, even though it has emerged the police do not believe they currently need them.(London Riots: Why the Violence Is Spreading Across England)

On Tuesday, Aug. 9, the prime minister, in effect, gave himself 48 hours to end the rioting and bring peace back to the streets of Britain’s cities. To that end he trebled to 16,000 the number of police available in London and promised to update a recalled parliament on Thursday on the success, or otherwise, of his fight back.

But while the move to flood the capital city with riot police pretty appeared to do the trick, with no serious disturbances on Tuesday night, it was at the cost of making London feel like a city under police occupation. Streets were deserted apart from lines of police trucks; shops and businesses across the city closed early and put up the shutters; and residents stayed at home behind locked doors. The bad news was the riots escalated into the U.K.’s next biggest cities, Birmingham, where three men were killed in a hit-and-run incident, Manchester, Liverpool and elsewhere with a repeat of the arson, looting and violence seen over the previous nights in London. And, once again, the police found it impossible to keep ahead of the rioters.

With time running out until Thursday’s crucial prime ministerial statement to parliament, Cameron upped the ante. After a second meeting of the government’s civil emergencies committee, (COBRA), he announced that plastic bullets were available to the police and that he had now authorised the use of water cannon. Deploying these weapons would have the inevitable consequence of drawing parallels with Northern Ireland where they were routinely used at the height of the sectarian troubles in Belfast and elsewhere from the 1970s to the 90s. It is a risk Cameron is willing to take.

He matched his actions with equally robust words, saying the courts should jail anyone convicted of violent disorder and insisting “phoney human rights” should not be allowed to get in the way of identifying and bringing to justice anyone involved in the violence. And, repeating a political theme he previously seemed to drop after it was met with widespread criticism, he said: “pockets of our society are not just broke but frankly sick.” His anger, shared across the political divide, was sparked by CCTV footage of a gang of youths apparently helping a badly injured youngster while stealing from him at the same time.(Britain’s Mean Streets)

What the prime minister refused to do, however, was abandon the planned 20% across-the-board cuts to the U.K. police forces. That saw a fresh rift opening between him and Conservative London Mayor, Boris Johnson, who is facing re-election next year and is widely believed to harburoambitions to succeed Cameron as party leader. Moments before the prime minister made his announcements, Johnson told the BBC this was not the right time to make such cuts. Cameron’s response was: “Mayors always want more money,” and to insist police chiefs told him they had all the resources they currently needed.

But Cameron also risked the charge of seeking tough-guy headlines with over-heated promises about water cannon and plastic bullets. Police leader Sir Hugh Orde, head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, appeared to reject the need for such weapons, telling the BBC: “Of course we listen very carefully to what the political leaders say….but the professional judgement and advice I currently have is we don’t see it as necessary.”

Will the Prime Minister’s makeover be just rhetoric to earn some headlines? Or will it genuinely turn the tide of the riots that have left many Britons frightened, angry and besieged is now the crucial question? Cameron will need it to be the last if he is to emerge from Thursday’s parliamentary debate with his leadership strengthened, not seriously damaged.

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