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 Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.