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Conservatives Battle to Take Charge

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The Prime Minister has finally returned from holiday and Parliament is being recalled. Even Boris Johnson is on his way back to a burning and riot torn London.

This is quite simply a make or break crisis situation for the Prime Minister, his Government and for Boris Johnson. They all face major challenges that will determine the future of the Government.

First, they have to deflect criticism that they were sunbathing on the job, when they were needed in London. Home Secretary Theresa May desperately needed senior support yesterday that could only have come from Cameron and the Mayor. The police may be the front line on the ground, but past experiences have shown that they need a united political line in front of them. That has not been overly present with key politicians 'on the beach'.

Both the Prime Minister and Mr Johnson allowed a perception to grow that they had underestimated the sheer scale of what was unfolding in London. For Cameron, this reprises criticism that he is a Chairman and not a Chief Executive when it comes to the day to day running of Government. Excusable perhaps for the local difficulties that come with the job - but indefensible when peoples' lives and livelihoods are in danger and when police and fire officers are under attack on such a widespread scale.

Although their aides had stressed to the media that modern communications ensure a complete ability to keep in control of crisis situations, they have underestimated the importance of peoples' perceptions that their leaders were not with them at a time of crisis in London. This is staggering considering David Cameron's PR background. I feel that his instinct over the weekend would have been to come back home. The question is, who persuaded him otherwise? It's not easy to show command of a crisis brief whilst being photographed in an Italian coffee shop as parts of London burn to the ground.

For Boris, matters are also complicated. His Metropolitan Police force are beleaguered, following recent senior resignations. It has a new interim Commissioner, untested in these situations. His officers are under the threat of redundancy and will have been working double shifts this weekend. Yet, a large part of the criticism last night was the sheer lack of a police presence throughout London and the regions as opportunist thieves cleaned out shops - in some cases actually trying clothes out for size - completely unchallenged.

We are told that tonight, there will be 16,000 police on the streets of London from nearly three dozen forces, compared with 6,000 last night. But many of these will be Special Constables, with limited experience of riot situations and a lack of specialist training. Boris will know that this situation is not sustainable. His policy is to cut police in London. How can he communicate that this is still the best policy? Boris also has some reassuring to give to international Olympics organizers - his is a capital city that has today seen a major sporting event - England v the Netherlands at Wembley - cancelled with less than 12 months to go before the start of the Olympics.

Home Secretary Theresa May has impressed, not least because she had the basic political wit to turn up for work yesterday morning, having been the only senior politician to cut short their break. But she has questions to answer. Why did she block the appointment of Bill Bratton, the American 'supercop' who was being considered to take over at the Met - and could he have handled this situation better? What friction is there between her and the Mayor on this issue? And both will come under severe pressure from many of members of the Conservative Party - and from the public and some sections of the media - as to why water canon were not used on the rioters.

Nick Clegg has been ineffective - the public have wanted the organ grinder and not the monkey. In the meantime, youtube clips from just prior to the last general election have started appearing on social networking sites, showing him predicting that if the Tories were to win, there would be 'Greek-style' rioting on the streets. The same clips show Cameron, ridiculing those comments.

The senior Labour leadership hardly comes out well from this either - having just read their 'lines to take' key messages on the situation, I am not surprised they are having no impact. Local constituency MPs such as Sadiq Khan have done well speaking from a very local and community perspective, though the Shadow Home Secretary and Ed Miliband have been unseen. Labour MPs are on dangerous territory. This is a political crisis, but the rioting itself does not seem to be part of a political movement. To the public, it is criminal behavior by opportunist hooligans. Blaming the Coalition for this, a line followed by Labour's Mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone, might backfire. Some Labour MPs, like Lewisham East's Heidi Alexander - speaking to the BBC from her honeymoon in America - were also blaming the scenes partly on political issues such as tuition fees legislation, an issue that did not appear front of mind to the looters and hooligans shown on the television last night.

Government will be shaken not only by the clear lawlessness in so many areas of England, but by the genuine fear shown on social networks such as facebook from ordinary citizens who were too scared and cautious to even go outside yesterday. The riots have affected many, many normal working people in this city.

Cameron needs to take charge and communicate a concrete action plan to stop the rioting. He was effective outside Downing Street earlier and is good in these situations. But if he does not come up with a plan, and anger grows at the delay in a co-ordinated Government response, then this will be a turning point in his Premiership.