Cameron returns to London after a night of nihilism

Scenes of destruction in London as riots spread to Birmingham and Liverpool.

When Nick Clegg warned of "Greek-style unrest" if a government with only a slim mandate brought in fierce spending cuts, he was widely derided. Not in conservative Britain, they said. But after last night's events, his words now look like an understatement.

In truth, however, it is spurious to draw any connection between the cuts (most of which have not been made) and the nihilistic destruction (as Ken Livingstone rather unwisely did last night) witnessed in London and other cities. In Croydon, a 144-year-old furniture shop was destroyed by fire, with nearby homes also engulfed. Marc Reeves, the owner of the store, later tweeted: "That shop in Croydon is on a street that bears its name: Reeves Corner. Established by my gt gt grandfather in 1867. Now gone." In Enfield, a Sony distribution centre was set on fire, triggering a huge blaze that, six hours on, is still raging.

But amid the destruction there were some heartening scenes. In Hackney, the location of much of the worst rioting, Kurds (some of them former Peshmerga fighters) and Turks bravely defended their shops and restaurants with bats and sticks. A true English Defence League, as one friend put it to me. In a clip that has already gone viral, a West Indian matriarch from the same borough confronted the rioters and ordered them to stop.

By the early evening, however, the rioting had spread to Birmingham, with widespread looting around the Bull Ring shopping centre, and an empty police station set on fire. In Liverpool, cars were set alight as police officers were pelted with weapons, with similar acts later witnessed in Bristol and Nottingham.

As he will know, David Cameron now faces the biggest test of his leadership to date. Like Boris Johnson and Theresa May, he wisely cut short his holiday and returned to London this morning. For Labour, Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman did the same as several MPs called for Parliament to be recalled. In the short-term, we can expect the debate to focus on the police, who, by their own admission were overwhelmed last night. As the destruction mounted, there were calls, including from liberals, for the police to use water cannon (which would have to be imported from Northern Ireland) and rubber bullets, even for the army to be called in. But speaking this morning, May has already ruled out the use of cannon: "The way we police in Britain is not with water cannon. The way we police in Britain is on the streets and with the communities."

For now, an odd sort of calm reigns as the great clean up begins. But whether or not the rioting continues tonight, the country demands leadership. Will our politicians provide it?

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Why there's never been a worse year to leave the EU than 2017

A series of elections will mean Britain's Brexit deal will be on the backburner until at least January 2018. 

So that's it. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, and begun Britain’s formal exit from the European Union.

Britain and the EU27 have two years to make a deal or Britain will crash out without a deal. There are two ways out of that – firstly, it's possible that Britain could withdraw its invocation of Article 50, though the European Court of Justice has yet to rule on whether Article 50 is reversible or not. 

But if the government reaches the end of the two-year window, the timetable can only be extended with the unanimous agreement of not only the heads of the 27 other member states of the European Union, but the United Kingdom as well. Although both sides would suffer economic damage from an unplanned exit, no-one has done particularly well betting on economic self-interest as far as either Britain or the European Union in general is concerned, let alone when the two’s relationship with another is the subject.

For May in particular, the politics of extending the timetable are fraught. Downing Street wants Brexit done and dusted by 2019 to prevent it becoming a destabilising issue in the 2020 election, and in any case, any extension would provoke ructions in the Conservative Party and the pro-Brexit press.

But the chances that the EU27 and the UK will not come to an agreement at all, particularly by March 2019, are high. Why? In a stroke of misfortune for Britain, 2017 is very probably the worst year in decades to try to leave the European Union. Not just because of the various threats outside the bloc – the election of Donald Trump and the growing assertiveness of Russia – but because of the electoral turmoil inside of it.

May will trigger Article 50 at exactly the time that the French political class turns inward completely in the race to pick François Hollande’s successor as President enters its final stretch. Although a new president will be elected by 7 May, politics in that country will then turn to legislative elections in June. That will be particularly acute if, as now looks likely, Emmanuel Macron wins the presidency, as the French Left will be in an advanced state of if not collapse, at least profound transformation. (If, as is possible but not likely, Marine Le Pen is elected President, then that will also throw Britain's Brexit renegotiations off course but that won't matter as much as the European Union will probably collapse.) 

That the Dutch elections saw a better showing for Mark Rutte's Liberals means that he will go into Brexit talks knowing that he will be Prime Minister for the foreseeable future, but Rutte and the Netherlands, close allies of the United Kingdom, will be preoccupied by coalition negotiations, potentially for much of the year.

By the time the new President and the new legislative assembly are in place in France, Germany will enter election mode as Angela Merkel seeks re-election. Although the candidacy of Martin Schulz has transformed the centre-left SPD's poll rating, it has failed to dent Merkel's centre-right CDU/CSU bloc significantly and she is still in the box seat to finish first, albeit by a narrow margin. Neither Merkel's Christian Democrats or Schulz's Social Democrats, are keen to continue their increasingly acrimonious coalition, but it still looks likely that there will be no other viable coalition. That means there will be a prolonged and acrimonious period of negotiations before a new governing coalition emerges.

All of which makes it likely that Article 50 discussions will not begin in earnest before January 2018 at the earliest, almost halfway through the time allotted for Britain’s exit talks. And that could be further delayed if either the Italian elections or the Italian banking sector causes a political crisis in the Eurozone.

All of which means that May's chances of a good Brexit deal are significantly smaller than they would be had she waited until after the German elections to trigger Article 50. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.