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MPs debate riots: Divisions on day of unity

By Iain Watson
Political correspondent, BBC News

image captionDavid Cameron and Ed Miliband were united in their condemnation of the rioters

Consensus, condemnation, criminality and cuts.

These were the four themes that dominated debate as MPs picked over the aftermath of the riots and looting that have swept England's major cities in recent days.

Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband made it clear from the start that this was not an occasion for party political point scoring. Heaven forfend!

One issue on which all sides could agree was that the rioters were a disgrace.

They should be condemned. There was no excuse for their actions. Their parents should be - well, better parents.

Those rioters who were parents were an outrage.

Victims must be helped, businesses compensated.

The bravery of police officers was universally praised - but the apparently slow response of the police to the breakdown of public order in some areas was criticised by MPs on all sides.

That these disturbances were caused by criminals - not protesters - was also an analysis which transcended the party divide.

The prime minister declared: "This is criminality pure and simple and there is absolutely no excuse for it."

His Labour opposite number, Ed Miliband, was equally forthright, telling MPs: "We stand shoulder to shoulder against vandalism and violence... there can be no excuses, no justification."

Political positioning

But the consensus in the Commons chamber did not hold for long.

What we witnessed in packed House of Commons chamber - where even some cabinet members could not get a seat - was an attempt by government and opposition to write the first draft of history, or possibly rewrite it.

For David Cameron the riots were about responsibility - or rather lack of it - and not about resources.

For Ed Miliband, resources - or rather, a lack of them - were the major issue.

image captionDiane Abbott was among several London MPs to have their say

He called for a rethink of the police cuts - as did at least 22 of his Labour colleagues, including shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, who talked of "deep concern across the country" about the scale of spending reductions, repeating the familiar mantra that the government was cutting "too far, too fast".

This particular piece of political positioning is seen as hugely important by Labour strategists.

If cuts are perceived by the public to be at least partially to blame for lack of effective policing, then the government would not just come under pressure to reverse them - their whole deficit reduction strategy would be undermined.

They would have demonstrated that they were not prepared to stand firm under pressure. the opposition believes.

So reversing police cuts would be, inevitably, followed by demands for other cuts to be halted, to youth services, for example, or social services in general. And certainly to the ministry of justice.

'Coalition unity'

So government spin doctors at Westminster were this afternoon dispensing the bitter pill that there would be no U-turn on police budgets.

There was, we were told, "complete coalition unity" on this - the Lib Dems, in other words, were fully on board.

But the firm words were sweetened with reassurances that a reduction in police numbers would not prevent the kind of substantial deployments of recent days recurring if necessary.

image captionFormer shadow home secretary David Davis also made his presence felt in the debate

So rather than simply defending the need for deficit reduction, David Cameron chose to emphasise a lack of individual responsibility, and a wider malaise in society, as a potential cause of the anarchy we have seen in recent days.

His own Big Society, along with welfare reform, is supposed to provide the cure.

The prime minister praised the volunteer "broom army" who are on the streets today, clearing up other people's mess.

Ed Miliband tried to man-mark him on this pitch, talking of the need for greater responsibility, while attacking from an unexpected angle.

Instead of sticking to the traditional left-wing territory of criticising cuts, he also advocated more populist measures on tougher sentencing and on greater use of CCTV.


In response, Mr Cameron - who not so long ago was happy to describe himself as a "liberal Conservative" - decided what was needed instead was the smack of firm government.

He was engaged in a "fightback". He would not "allow a climate of fear to exist on the streets".

He announced a raft of new, robust-sounding measures - though it soon became apparent that detailed discussions were yet to take place on how to implement them.

Injunctions on adult gang members would be extended to children.

But it was not clear whether that meant 14 to 17-year-olds, as originally intended, or whether even younger children could be subject to injunctions which could ban them from certain areas, or even from wearing certain kinds of clothing.

Police on the beat would have new powers to strip potential protesters of face masks - but that needs legislation, probably in the autumn.

There would be greater powers - and encouragement - for councils to evict their tenants if they have been looting and pillaging. But that idea is simply going out to consultation today.

The intelligence services are to be asked about how to disrupt social networks such as Twitter in some areas where riots might be about to occur.

'Getting a grip'

But - oops - the Lib Dems are not yet on board for this one.

And, as Home Secretary Theresa May herself suggested, it is not clear whether it is technically or legally possible to prevent social networks from being used to encourage anti-social behaviour.

One Conservative MP suggested it was better for the police to monitor social networks - to gain valuable intelligence - than to shut them down.

Overall, though, the government is now moving swiftly to give an impression it is "getting a grip" on a shocking situation.

On Monday, there were grumbles on the Conservative backbenchers about David Cameron continuing his holiday, but by the end of the week he appears to have been forgiven - by these critics at least.

But the wider arguments over police resources and how to restore a sense of responsibility in society will continue.

For all the talk by politicians today that there are "no simple solutions" to the cause of the disturbances, the party leaders are already developing their narratives.

Expect the dividing lines to become even clearer when the Commons resumes - assuming no further recalls - in September.

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