UK Politics

David Cameron delivers a statement of intent on riots

If you go out on the streets tonight you're in for a big surprise. That was the prime minister's message to those he branded "thugs". They would, he said, be "confronted and defeated" and risked wrecking not just the lives of others and their communities but their own as well.

It was a statement of intent that there will not be another night in which terrified residents complain that they either saw no police or those they did see did not intervene to protect the homes and shops of the innocent.

There will not be soldiers on the streets of London tonight - it is 100 years since that happened and Downing Street has no desire to make history in that way. There will not be water cannon - they don't want to bring the policing methods of Belfast or the Continent to England.

There will, however, be lots and lots of men and women in blue - 16,000 police are expected to be on the streets of the capital (up from 6000) and they will be told to be "more robust" - ie intervening more often and arresting more people.

For now, there is only one question the prime minister must answer - can he regain control of the streets of the country he's meant to be in charge of. Soon, however, he will face other questions - why did this happen and how can it be prevented in future?

Pressure will come from the left - who will claim that lack of opportunities and cuts to youth services and Educational Maintenance Allowances played their part - and the right who will insist that Britain has just seen the consequences of what David Cameron used to call the Broken Society and the failure to match rights with responsibilities. The police will seek support from both sides to resist the cuts. (Last night's discussion on Newsnight saw all these themes played out very clearly).

David Cameron was not involved in politics as a student but he will, surely, have been reflecting on the lessons of the early 1980s - the last time Britain saw such scenes.

He will know that many in his party will want him to react as Norman Tebbit did - reminding the Tory Conference that in the 1930s his father had not rioted but had got on his bike and looked for work. Others, though, will urge him to act as Michael Heseltine did. He sought to revive the inner cities and berated his party for expecting young black men to sign up to fight and die for their country in the Falklands whilst appearing to care little for them at home.

The choice he makes will define his government and, either way, may come with a very big bill attached.

That, of course, poses its own problems given the other crisis which has been developing whilst the prime minister's been away...