UK Politics

Landale online: Ministers split over riots reaction

Riot police in Croydon on 9 August 2011
Image caption Were the riots earlier this month a game changer for David Cameron's premiership?

A few weeks ago, when Muammar Gaddafi was still in the pink and surrounded by his Amazonian female bodyguards, David Cameron did something rather interesting.

He changed his government's direction and focus.

In the wake of the riots that swept through English cities, the prime minister said the "broken society" was now back at the top of his agenda.

He promised to review every aspect of the government's work "to consider whether our plans and programmes are big enough and bold enough to deliver the change that I feel this country now wants to see".

And he announced that all domestic policy would be subject to a new "family test".

Explaining what that phrase would mean in practice, he said: "If it hurts families, if it undermines commitment, if it tramples over the values that keeps people together, or stops families from being together, then we shouldn't do it."

Bold stuff indeed.

The body that is going to do all this work - the "social policy review group" - met for the first time earlier on Tuesday.

Big-picture discussion

Around the table in Downing Street was the prime minister, his deputy, Nick Clegg, chancellor George Osborne, home secretary Theresa May, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, Welfare Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and others.

The committee hopes to meet weekly before coming up with proposals in October, potentially in time for the Conservative Party's annual conference.

Tuesday morning's one hour meeting looked at the work that has already begun, particularly the review of policy towards street gangs being carried out by Mrs May and Mr Duncan Smith.

The meeting also looked at how the government can speed up the way justice is meted out by the courts.

But - and here's the surprise - the meeting also contained yet another big-picture discussion about the importance of the riots, about which the government has yet to make up its mind.

There are two schools of thought.

There are those who think the riots transformed the UK's political landscape and that a commensurate response from government is required.

Main focus

This group believes the entire agenda of welfare, education and growth needs to be recast to focus on tackling the causes of the riots.

They believe the disturbances should allow Mr Cameron to revive his broken society/Big Society agenda, thus providing him also with a policy focus away from the economy.

And there are those who think the riots were indeed significant but believe the government should not overreact.

They think ministers need to address the causes of the violence but should not lose sight of the government's main focus, namely cutting the deficit and restoring the economy.

"This wasn't like the Brixton or Toxteth riots," said one minister close to the debate.

"They were not fighting or demonstrating for something. No one still is really clear of the reasons why (the riots) did occur.

"When we look back at this parliament, we will remember the riots, but we won't remember that the world changed."

Risks

Now those close to Mr Cameron insist there is no conflict between these two positions. They say he can equally focus on social issues as well as the economy and will do so throughout the autumn.

Well, maybe. But there are risks:

1. To govern is to choose, and if the government is not clear whether its overriding priority is social reform or deficit reduction, then Whitehall could get confused and policy could go awry.

2. It is conceivable that a deficit-reducing policy might not pass Mr Cameron's new "family test". What happens then? For example, policies that require more and more parents to go out and work sooner after the birth of their children might help economic growth, but it might also harm their family.

3. This is potentially divisive within the coalition. Many in the Lib Dem leadership do not see the riots as a game changer. They want want to refocus relentlessly on the economy this autumn because they have placed all their chips on the play of that card. Nothing else matters. So if the government goes full pelt for expensive anti-gang policies dreamt up by Mr Duncan Smith and takes its eye off the economic ball, expect a fuss from the Lib Dems.

As to where Mr Cameron himself stands on all this, we shall probably have to wait for his conference speech in early October to find out.