Recently Boris Johnson bought three water cannons to be used by the police. Because I thought this was a recipe for disaster, I wrote to my MP, David Burrowes, about it.
I should point out that Burrowes is the MP for Enfield Southgate, a constituency close to the site of last year's Tottenham riots, which were sparked after the police shot dead a criminal who appeared to be unarmed.
My letter went as follows:
Dear David Burrowes
I was very upset to hear that Boris Johnson has bought three water cannon, with the intention that they should be used on the streets of London.
Every major riot in London has been sparked off by the perception that the police have been heavy handed. This includes the Brixton Riots, the Broadwater Farm riots, the poll tax riots and the recent riots in Tottenham, which spread all over the country. It will only take one person to be badly hurt by a water canon, and all hell will break loose. I need not remind you that the recent Tottenham riots spread into Enfield and nearly affected your own constituency.
We do not need water cannon to control crowds. They are potentially extremely dangerous and are only likely to inflame anger. I'd like to know what your position is on this subject. Because it affects your constituents so directly, I think most people would be very disappointed if you tried to ignore this issue. Could you let me know whether you intend to oppose this measure and, if so, what you intend to do about it.
Within a fortnight, David Burrowes wrote back. His reply was commendably brief and commendably candid: unfortunately he completely disagreed with everything I wrote.
His reply, which I quote in full, goes as follows:
Dear Mr Shamash,
Thank you for your letter.
I support Boris Johnson's stance on this issue. The Police need all appropriate tools in the box to quell disorder. The issue of the riots – particularly in Enfield – went beyond police behaviour. Indeed there is a good argument that earlier and firmer control of the rioters could have prevented lawless behaviour spreading across London and the country.
I appreciate that this is not the response you were hoping for but thank you for taking the time to write.
With best wishes
It was an interesting, if disturbing, letter for a number of reasons. He didn't just restrict his comments to water cannon. He seemed to be suggesting that police need all sorts of powers and equipment to quell disorder.
It should be noted that Burrowes is not just a thuggish idiot, although he does believe in strong law and order and tougher sentencing. He is a solicitor, a staunch Catholic, a former councillor and a very conscientious local MP.
He also said something odd. 'The cause of the riots went beyond policing behaviour'. It's difficult to know what this means. Presumably he is saying that the perpetrators of the riot were not just behaving in a criminal way. Presumably he feels that they were trying to bring down the entire edifice of British society.
And what does he mean by 'earlier and firmer control of the rioters'? The rioters in the recent disturbances in Tottenham gathered on the street after a young man had been shot dead by police. They then proceeded to start looting shops and burning building. Finding that the police were completely overwhelmed by such tactics, others joined in. The only way that the police could have exercised more control would be by imposing a curfew before the trouble started. Unless I'm very much mistaken, this seems to be the sort of action that Burrowes envisages. We've never seen this on the British mainland and it seems to involve an imposition of some kind of martial law.
The timing of the letter was also interesting. It was sent on 24 June. It was on this day that Burrowes resigned as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Owen Paterson. In other words he left Mr Cameron's government. He did this citing health grounds – a serious appendix operation. Although I have to say that I saw him only six weeks ago, opening a fete, and he seemed to be in excellent health and took time to discuss the licensing of betting shops with me. His resignation letter also suggested that he was working – with another conservative MP Nick de Bois - on a new bill to introduce minimum sentencing for knife crime.
The other thing that struck me about the letter that he sent me, was that he mentioned Johnson by name. He didn't just say that he was in favour of robust policing, but that he supported 'Johnson's stance'. It is also worth noting that Nick de Bois doesn't have any pictures of Cameron on his website, but he has a very prominent one of Johnson.
I try to avoid conspiracy theories, but it seems likely that this is part of some move against Cameron and for Johnson. I wouldn't like to suggest that there is a full blown coup on the way, but it is clear that – in the background at least – the political knives are being sharpened and that battle lines are being drawn up. And that many MPs would prefer Johnson's populist law-and-order stance to the increasingly beleaguered Cameron.