Riots and tumbling stock markets are more than a PR problem – but that’s no help to the UK’s Cameron and Johnson

The two Old Etonians in charge of the UK’s capital city – prime minister David Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson – have come scurrying back from holiday (Cameron from Tuscany, Boris from goodness knows where but there was probably an echo chamber to amplify his own voice) hoping desperately that their world becomes a little better.

Stock markets tumbling in the wake of the US and Eurozone debt crises (and Standard & Poors’ own PR disaster in downgrading the US economy) and London’s local high streets are ablaze as protests over the police shooting of 29-year old father of four Mark Duggan turned into an orgy of looting challenge UK politics’ alpha males on a number of counts.

It won’t be long before more commentators starts rehearsing the analogies between the riots that disfigured the early years of Mrs Thatcher’s government in the 1980s and this particular summer of discontent.

Mrs T had a big Conservative majority in the House of Commons though and her own steely determination (some would say blind obstinacy) to see things through to a successful outcome. And she didn’t have a full scale financial crisis to cope with at the same time.

Cameron, head of a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, does not have a secure political base and no-one yet knows if he has the cojones to see this one through. There is also the complete refusal of right wing politicians (and some left wing ones) to admit to any link between the riots and government-imposed cuts even though many people in local government and services have no doubt that there is a clear link.

Johnson’s preferred approach is bluff and bluster, talking things up in the hope that his optimism persuades people that things aren’t so bad. But things are undeniably bad in the UK’s capital city; the hapless (and commissioner-less) Metropolitan Police has triggered another crisis with what looks like a botched operation and proved completely unable to contain the consequent violence.

Boris’s dream of a triumphant London Olympics in 2012 propelling him to the eventual leadership of the Conservative Party and No 10 Downing Street is looking more improbable than ever.

More generally, with London’s underclass in seeming open revolt, the presence at the top of two graduates of Britain’s most elite private school and Oxford University (not the sort of chaps who would ever be tempted to loot something from PC World) projects an image that looks weirdly reminiscent of the riots that characterised London in the 18th century, a government that was out of touch with an underclass that was (almost) out of control.

Another problem for Johnson is that, throughout the financial crisis, he has positioned himself firmly as the bankers’ friend, talking up the City of London because that’s where the money is (or was). But now there is anger in the wider community that the financial system has let people down, a feeling that is increased every day stock markets fall and people’s investments and pensions take another powder.

You would need to be a PR genius to devise a strategy to deal with this which would convince people that you had things under control and neither the PM or the mayor have any such person to hand.

The best the Government seems able to do is threaten to arrest the protestors (difficult, there are rather a lot of them), blame the likes of Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger for instant communications that aid the rioters (Twitter and Research in Motion don’t need all this either but they’re not going to withdraw their products because the UK government doesn’t like them) and, on the economic front, claim that its cost-cutting measures have prevented economic meltdown in the UK.

Cameron and Johnson are going to need more than this if they’re to show that Tory leadership is good for the country.

At the moment they probably don’t know where to start.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.