Vacationing Amid Riot Gives Cameron Cabinet Historic Moment

Cameron Rushed Home to Regain Control as Riots Struck London
British Prime Minister David Cameron, right, talks to Acting Borough Commander Police Superintendent Jo Oakley in Croydon, south of London, on August 9, 2011. Photographer: Pool

In the annals of the United Kingdom, no one can remember the last time the Prime Minister, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Home Secretary and Mayor of London were on vacation abroad when the nation was convulsed in riots.

As the worst violence to hit London streets since the 1980s erupted on Aug. 6, Prime Minister David Cameron was in Tuscany. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne took his children to Disneyland. Home Secretary Theresa May, who oversees the police, was out of the country while London Mayor Boris Johnson had gone to Canada. It wasn’t until television screens showed a third evening of fires and looting that Cameron ended his Italian holiday to return to his Downing Street office.

“It is embarrassing,” Steven Fielding, director of the Centre for British Politics at Nottingham University, said in an interview. “You wouldn’t have thought it was necessary to coordinate holidays with the mayor, but for the prime minister, the chancellor, the home secretary all to be away at the same time? You’d think there’d be some kind of coordination.”

While nobody in the Cabinet says the same mistake will be made next August, the prime minister continued to run the country from his Tuscan villa. Cameron and Osborne already had been berated by opposition politicians and newspapers over their absence from Britain during the previous week’s financial-market turbulence that wiped 220 billion pounds ($355 billion) from the value of U.K. shares.

Zapatero, Berlusconi

The leaders of Spain and Italy were never far from their people when their bond markets plummeted, increasing concerns that they would need to follow Greece in seeking bailouts.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero delayed by a week his vacation in the southern region of Andalusia, an hour’s flight from Madrid, to monitor the market turmoil.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi paid a two-night visit to his villa on the island of Sardinia before returning to Rome to push through austerity measures needed to win European Central Bank assistance.

By contrast, Osborne found himself in a time zone eight hours behind London as concerns about the global economy sparked a stock-market rout that saw the FTSE 100 index plunge almost 10 percent in the first week of August. The Daily Mirror newspaper, which supports the opposition Labour Party, accused Cameron and Osborne of having “Gone AWOL.”

‘Get Back Quickly’

“I don’t think I could have got back much faster” after a second night of unrest the night of Aug. 7, Cameron told the Sunday Telegraph yesterday in an in interview. “There wasn’t a clamour on Sunday. I spent a lot of the time on the telephone on euro-zone issues, and the economy. Then everything turned and changed. But look -- it was important as soon as what was happening on Monday was apparent, to get back quickly and that’s what I did.”

Johnson, who faces re-election next year, was an 8 1/2-hour flight away in Calgary. He described waiting in the departure lounge of the Canadian city’s airport for a plane home and watching on television as “the images of a blazing London filled the screen.”

Cameron used a speech today to pledge a “social fightback,” promising action to turn around the 120,000 “most troubled” families and dismissing suggestions that government spending cuts or racial tensions were behind the riots.

‘Twisted Moral Code’

“This was about behavior,” he said in a speech in Oxfordshire. “People showing an indifference to right and wrong. People with a twisted moral code. People with a complete absence of self-restraint.” In a separate speech in London, Labour leader Ed Miliband renewed his call for a public inquiry.

Cameron, Osborne and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg all have school-age children, giving them a six-week window between the end of July and the start of September in which to take vacations. Foreign Secretary William Hague, who has no children, was the most senior Cabinet member in London last week.

It’s unusual in British politics to have all the senior offices held by people in their early 40s. While Tony Blair had children at school throughout his time as prime minister, John Prescott, his deputy, and Gordon Brown, his chancellor, didn’t. Brown’s eldest son didn’t start school until after he took the top job. His chancellor, Alistair Darling, had children in their late teens.

“We insisted there was a senior minister about all the time,” Prescott told BBC television Aug. 7. “People think August is a quiet time. It isn’t.”

Caught on the Hop

Even so, the Labour government was also caught on the hop.

Blair was on vacation in southwestern France on Aug. 15, 1998, when a bomb exploded in the Northern Irish town of Omagh, killing 29 people. In his memoirs, he said he had to borrow a suit from one of his security guards to give a press statement. He travelled to Northern Ireland the next morning.

As well as his security detail, a prime minister travels with a small team of officials, including a clerk, and one of the “garden-room girls,” a team of elite secretaries who work in an office in Downing Street overlooking the garden. They enable him to stay in contact with London even as he’s vacationing.

“You are never on holiday when you are doing these jobs,” the economic secretary to the Treasury, Justine Greening, told BBC television last week, as she occupied the position of duty minister in London at Osborne’s finance ministry. “The prime minister and the chancellor are fully in control and aware of exactly what is happening.”

In Contact

Cameron was forced last month to cut short a trip to Africa as the scandal over phone-hacking at News Corp.’s News of the World newspaper widened. Defending his decision to go ahead with the visit, he told reporters in Pretoria, South Africa, “Just because you’re travelling to Africa doesn’t mean that you suddenly lose contact with your office.”

The premier, though, is not as much in control as a U.S. leader. Whenever the president leaves Washington for his vacation, the full presidential apparatus travels with him, giving him the same operational capacity as if he was in the White House. The president may still make major announcements during that time. Barack Obama nominated Ben S. Bernanke to a second term as Federal Reserve chairman two years ago when he was staying in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

Spreading Violence

The outbreaks of looting and arson that began on Aug. 6 in the north London suburb of Tottenham spread across the city the following night. Cameron was not back in his office to chair a meeting of the government’s emergency response committee until the morning of Aug. 9, about 60 hours after the start of the unrest.

“The man who’s supposed to be the arch-spinner and gauger of the public mood, David Cameron, screwed up,” said Fielding. “They underestimated its seriousness. Once it became clear that this was London-wide, they should have come back.”

Once back in London, the prime minister recalled Parliament, prompting the return of other ministers and the Labour Party leader, who was also on vacation. More robust police tactics introduced after the premier took charge proved effective, preventing a fourth night of arson and looting in the capital, though there was disorder in some other English cities.

To be sure, the British government is not the only one in Europe where senior ministers head off for vacation at the same time.

As the euro debt crisis worsened last week during Berlin’s school holidays, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is childless, was vacationing in northern Italy. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, whose four children are all grown up, was on the North Sea island of Sylt, and he stayed last week.

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