What the London Riots Spell for the British Prime Minister

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British Prime Minister David Cameron, right, talks to Acting Borough Commander Police Superintendent Jo Oakley in Croydon, south of London, on August 9, 2011, where he saw damage to shops and residences carried out by rioters on Monday night. (Photo: Stefan Rousseau / AFP / Getty Images)

by Nick Assinder/London

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.”

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