The Great Riot of London: The Stakes for David Cameron

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David Goddard / Getty Images

Row houses smolder on London Road, just north of the Croydon town center in London, on Aug. 9, 2011

After three nights of violence, arson and looting that have left parts of London looking like a war zone, Prime Minister David Cameron has one pressing question to answer from citizens looking to him for reassurance and action: Who controls Britain's streets?

Throughout Monday night and the early hours of Tuesday morning, the answer to that question appeared to be the mob. It certainly was not the police, politicians or local community leaders, all of whom were overwhelmed by the unprecedented scale of the violence and the speed with which it escalated and spread, first from one London borough to another and then, perhaps inevitably, to other cities, including Liverpool, Birmingham and Bristol.

If Cameron cannot offer a different answer, one reassuring people that government ministers and the police have control, then the consequences for his leadership could be far-reaching and ultimately even lethal. Margaret Thatcher's long reign as Prime Minister came to an end partly as a result of less devastating riots in response to her attempt to radically reform local taxation in March 1990. As Diane Abbott, Member of Parliament for Hackney, one of the worst-hit boroughs in North London, tells TIME, "One of the basic functions of a nation-state is to maintain public order. If Cameron cannot regain control over the next 24 hours, then he will be in serious political trouble."

Unlike the Thatcher unrest, there is no single policy issue driving these riots, but as Abbott points out, the deep government cuts to public spending and local community services in response to the economic downturn have yet to really take hold in many communities. "When they do, it isn't going to make things any better," she says. But like the majority of politicians on all sides, she draws a distinction between violence sparked by social tensions and criminality. "This violence may have started with the police killing of a man in Tottenham on Saturday, as they classically do start, but last night was just recreational looting, and the big problem was that the gangs were allowed to loot shopping centers for hours without the police intervening, so the message went out [that] you could go and loot without being arrested by the police."

With the capital preparing to host the 2012 Summer Olympics in exactly one year's time, the images of burning buildings, looted shops and bloody clashes between riot police and gangs of hooded and masked youths are about the worst possible advertisement for a city already facing concerns over security levels for such a massive event, with activities taking places around the capital.

For his part, the Prime Minister, who cut short his holiday to return to Downing Street, attempted to show he had a grip of the crisis. He convened a meeting of the civil-emergencies committee Cobra (named after its venue, Cabinet Office Briefing Room A) with senior police officers and Ministers and announced a huge increase in police numbers on the capital's streets, from 6,000 on Monday, Aug. 8, to 16,000. He also said Parliament would be recalled from its summer break on Thursday, Aug. 11, to hear an update on the situation from him. If he has failed to end the riots by then, he will face serious challenges over his competence.

The Prime Minister knows that a lot rides on his reaction to this latest crisis, which, for the second time in a matter of weeks, has found him appearing well behind the curve of events and forced to recall Parliament. First it was the phone-hacking scandal, which saw the opposition leader making all the early moves and Cameron belatedly running to catch up with announcements on public inquiries on July 20. And only last week, the Prime Minister faced criticism from opposition politicians for remaining on holiday as the euro zone veered toward crisis, including headlines like "Is Anybody in Charge?"

This time, Cameron, opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and London Mayor Boris Johnson all broke their summer holidays to fly back to Britain as the crisis deepened and clamor grew for the nation's leaders to "do something," with suggestions including using water cannons, putting troops on the streets and imposing curfews in targeted areas. The Prime Minister rejected those options; the focus of activity at the moment is boosting police resources and intelligence. "We will make the streets safe," Cameron promised.

Downing Street initially said on Monday that Cameron would not be returning from Tuscany to take control of the reaction to the riots but was monitoring the situation on an hourly basis. Much the same was said for Johnson. Undoubtedly there were fears that the sight of politicians rushing back to the U.K. would only add to the sense that this was a genuine crisis.

In the end, politicians were not needed to encourage that impression. The rioters managed it without any help, with scenes of destruction and violence that some observers claim had not been witnessed in London since the German Luftwaffe blitzed the city in 1940–41 during World War II. What appalled many residents and shopkeepers was the lack of a police presence as their streets were torched and looted.

Cameron has until Thursday to show that he can put a lid on this unprecedented eruption of violence. Even if he succeeds, there will remain another question to be answered, the same question that was asked during similar riots across the U.K. in the 1980s, another time of mass unemployment and recession: What is it that leads vast numbers of the country's youth to feel so disengaged and alienated from society and their own communities that they resort to violence, even allegedly recreational violence, on such a devastating scale?