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Mehdi Hasan: Cameron posed for pictures with a Tuscan waitress as London burned

Failing to understand the need to return quickly was a huge misjudgement by Cameron.

What, I wonder, was the defining image of the past week? A terrified woman jumping out of a burning building? A 140-year-old furniture shop in Croydon that managed to survive the Blitz, engulfed in flames? An injured, bleeding teenager having his rucksack emptied by a passing group of feral youths?

Or was it, perhaps, a tanned and smiling David Cameron, arm around an Italian waitress, Francesca Ariani, at the Dolcenero café in Montevarchi? Our holidaying PM, who had earlier provoked headlines by failing to leave Ariani a tip, had gone back to the Tuscan café to make amends, with photographers in tow.

Purely in PR terms, it was a bizarre decision by the man who was once head of corporate communications for Carlton Television. Back home, as violence and looting erupted in Britain's cities, the photograph, published in newspapers on 7 August, served to remind the public that their Prime Minister was abroad, on a £6,000-a-week holiday, with no plans to come back and take charge.

As late as 6.30pm on the evening of Monday 8, a full 48 hours into the riots, Downing Street was adamant that there was no need for the Prime Minister to return home early from Italy. But by 3am the following morning, with what Scotland Yard later described as the worst looting and disorder in "current memory" spreading across the country, Cameron was on an RAF flight back to London, leaving his wife and children behind at their holiday villa.

Open goal

Good judgement is the single most important attribute of a successful political leader. And yet, time and again, Cameron's judgement has been shown to be suspect; in fact, the story of his premiership so far is one of poor judgement and a terrible lack of attention to detail. As a result, he seems too often to be playing catch-up, perpetually having to perform U-turns to rescue high-profile (and high-risk) policies, from the break-up of the National Health Service to the sell-off of the nation's forests. Need I mention his decision to appoint the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his chief spin doctor?

Going abroad on holiday in August wasn't an error, but failing to understand the need to return quickly, or recognise how damaging it could be if he appeared out of touch, was a huge misjudgement.

Two years ago, in July 2007, Cameron's constituency, Witney, suffered its worst floods in 50 years, with homes and businesses evacuated. The then leader of the opposition, however, went off on an official visit to Rwanda and was reluctant to cut short his trip and come back - provoking the ire of constituents and backbenchers alike. Less than a month ago, he had to defend his decision to visit Africa at the height of the phone-hacking scandal - and was then forced to curtail his trip, come back early and recall parliament. Sound familiar?

But has the latest misjudgement done any lasting or permanent damage to the Cameron brand? Perhaps not. First, Labour failed to exploit the PM's absence. While the former deputy leader John Prescott launched the hashtag #wheresthegovernment on Twitter, to draw attention to the absence of Cameron, George Osborne, Nick Clegg and London's mayor, Boris Johnson, who were all out of the country at the same time, other senior Labour figures were silent.

Ed Miliband, in particular, missed an open goal. Why was Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, fresh from his French getaway, and not the Labour leader, being escorted around riot-hit Tottenham by the local (Labour) MP, David Lammy? Unlike Italy or France, Devon - Miliband's August bolt-hole - is just a three-and-a-half-hour drive away from north London. Yet the Labour leader announced he was cutting short his vacation only after Cameron had done so.

Second, and as is so often the case when under greatest pressure, Cameron looked serious, confident and focused on his return from Italy. He chaired a meeting of the government's Cobra crisis response committee, announced extra resources for the police and went out on to the streets of London to see the damage for himself. To the annoyance of his critics, the Prime Minister seems to perform best when his back is against the wall. "He was on top of his game, well briefed and well informed," says a source who was present at the Cobra meeting on 8 August.

Social deficit

Cameron is not out of the woods yet. By deploying 10,000 extra police officers in London on 9 August, he helped prevent a fourth night of rioting on the streets of the capital, but the big question is: what next? How do Britain's cities begin to heal their wounds? How does the government prevent such riots from recurring? Will Cameron emulate Margaret Thatcher and appoint a modern-day George Scarman to investigate the unrest?
“We haven't yet thought about the aftermath or what shape or form any inquiry will take," a cabinet minister tells me. "We're just focused on restoring order right now."

Then there are the cuts. Some commentators on the left have wrongly blamed the coalition's austerity measures for the outbreak of violence, when what we witnessed was not a political protest or a resistance movement but mass thuggery and widespread criminality. It is difficult to believe that the masked youths who looted Foot Locker and Currys, or set fire to buses, did so because their Education Maintenance Allowance has been scrapped by the government.

That is not to say that socio-economic factors are irrelevant or that poverty and deprivation do not matter. Most of the rioters are from broken homes, failing schools and unemployment deserts. How will cutting local services help prevent riots in the future? How will reducing police numbers or the courts budget help keep a lid on violent crime?

The coalition's cuts may not have caused these riots, but the violence has called into question the wisdom of austerity measures. Here again, Cameron's judgement is skewed. He is obsessed with the Budget deficit. What of the social deficit?

These riots weren't caused by the cuts. But unless the Prime Minister changes course, the next wave - as his own Deputy Prime Minister predicted in opposition - might well be.

Mehdi Hasan's ebook "The Debt Delusion" is published by Random House (£2.99)

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy