Until a few hours ago, Downing Street was insisting David Cameron would not return to London to help oversee the response to the riots. This is an era of modern communications, we were told – the PM can be in charge from Italy.
At about the same time, a friend of mine was in a taxi trying to get home via Bethnal Green Road in east London, where police were involved in a stand-off with crowds of (largely) young men. The driver told her: “David Cameron needs to come back – nobody is speaking to these people [referring to the rioters].”
Sure enough, just 20 minutes ago, we were told Cameron would be coming home tonight, ready to chair a meeting of Cobra, the cabinet emergency committee, on Tuesday morning.
What can Cameron do? Probably not a lot. I certainly don’t imagine his words will have the magic effect on rioters that my friend’s cabbie seemed to imagine.
But when people’s homes, businesses and maybe even lives are in danger, their response is not likely to be entirely rational. They simply want to know their politicians understand the gravity of the situation and care.
His absence also gave the opposition an open goal. The worse the situation got, the louder their calls for him to return became, turning the story into a political one as much as a crime and justice story.
As long as he stayed abroad, he was vulnerable to damaging pictures juxtaposing him sunning himself in Italy with pictures of London burning. That would further play into the narrative, being talked up by Ken Livingstone on the BBC tonight, that Cameron is hopelessly out of touch.
Many people’s gut response is simply that they wanted the PM home. They have now got their wish. The problem is for the government that it by no means guarantees that the violence will end. This could yet turn into a much more serious situation for the government than phone hacking.