Lynne Featherstone reflects on being left to handle the London riots

We’ve been thinking a lot about when ministers should and shouldn’t return from holiday recently, and the consequences of their decisions.

But the tragic and appalling events in Afghanistan weren’t the first time senior ministers have been away when something big has kicked off and their junior ministers have had to deal with it.

Today Lynne Featherstone tells My London about her experience 10 years ago when the Tottenham Riots broke out. Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, was off sunning himself somewhere and didn’t come back, David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Theresa May were all away, so, for a brief time, Lynne was the face of the Government response to the riots.

I was the ‘duty minister’ that weekend for the Home Office. But this was such a big story, I expected to see the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary,”

She called Nick Timothy, who, with Fiona Hall was May’s extremely unpopular adviser when she was PM and was then at the Home Office. He told her to come in as she was “the only one in the room.”

Lynne assumed that someone more senior would be around:

“I assumed that they’d be a ‘grown-up’ in the room,” she continued.

“The machine of government is there to support making sure everything is in place all of the time and clearly it wasn’t, or there hadn’t been any coordination.

“[Between] William Hague, Theresa May [and] David Cameron, none of the senior people were around.”

She felt a bit daunted by the enormity of the situation:

It was incredibly important to get the tone right, and not to set any hares running that would scare people, but also to give a frank description of what the government was doing and what was happening,” explained Featherstone.

For an experienced minister that would be a tricky line to tread, but after a phone call with Theresa May, who’d already agreed the government lines with her special advisors, she was put in front of the cameras.

“I’d never really done any media before, [well] none to speak of,” Featherstone added.

She admitted to being “quite terrified” as she faced the media knowing her comments were going to be heard across the world.

And she described visiting a shopkeeper in her constituency who was livid at having been looted. Her civil service aide was trying to get her away but:

“I remember my private secretary saying, ‘minister, you’ve got to leave, you’ve got to leave.’ because [they didn’t like the situation]. But I didn’t, I went and talked to them, because that’s what you do.”

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14 Comments

  • Brad Barrows 29th Aug '21 - 8:38pm

    Mixed feelings reading this: on one hand the personal account is interesting, but I hate anything that reminds me that the Liberal Democrats actually went into government with the Conservatives. We need to show that we recognise the serious error we made and will never repeat it – articles like this do not give that message.

  • Michael Bukola 30th Aug '21 - 5:57am

    These were literally the worst riots for almost 300 years dating back to the Gordon Riots of 1780. Nick Clegg, in his capacity as Deputy Prime Minister appointed Dara Singh to head up the Communities and Victims Panel which produced a report and recommendations which have been largely forgotten amongst the fog of austerity and David Cameron’s Big Society.

  • We’re those riots 10 years ago worse than the riots in many English cities in 1981 caused by Thatchers brutal financial squeeze that destroyed many businesses and jobs? I remember going around the Highfield s area of Leicester at that time when petrol bombs were being thrown. Massive unrest. And then the poll tax riots ten years later more Thatcher. But there is always the possibility of having to govern with either tory or labour. Neither is very appealing

  • Brad Barrows: This is not a gung-ho “the Coalition was great” article. The error wasn’t going into government, it was how the party leadership of the time handled it — treating it as a love-in rather than a business arrangement, and completely failing to differentiate our party from the Tories while in government. Lynne had nothing to do with those monumental errors by Clegg & co, and this story is about Lynne as an individual and how she, as a junior Minister and a Lib Dem, handled a difficult situation when she was the most senior Government spokesperson in the room. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Coalition, it happened and we should make the most of our achievements as Lib Dems. This is different from what Clegg & co did, which was to act as if there was o difference between Tory and Lib Dem ministers in government, which is why it ended up that the Tories owned the success and we owned the failures.

  • Brad Barrows 30th Aug '21 - 3:19pm

    @Alex Macfie
    It appears I take a different view from you on two levels.
    Firstly, I think that any article that reminds people that the Liberal Democrats allowed the Conservatives to govern and voted for many of their disgusting policies, does the Liberal Democrats no favours. Secondly, I believe it was a fundamental error to go into coalition with the Tories…period. I trust that if the Party ever gets an opportunity in future it will side with progressive parties in Parliament and do everything in its power to prevent Conservatives inflicting their policies on society.

  • lynne featherstone 30th Aug '21 - 4:26pm

    There is one gaping difference between the absence of senior politicians then and now – there was little warning of the Tottenham riots. There was plenty of warning in Afghanistan.

  • Nonconformistradical 30th Aug '21 - 4:43pm

    @Brad Barrows
    What’s your definition of ‘progressive’ please?

  • Interesting article. I wish Lynne highlighted more the lack of failure of the Mayor of London – sadly our Prime Minister.

  • Brad Barrows 30th Aug '21 - 6:48pm

    @Nonconformistradical
    I think a useful way to consider this is to look at the positions of the different UK parties at the 2019 General Election as set out on politicalcompass.org – You will see that the Conservatives sit in the top right of the Authoritarian/Right quadrant alongside the Brexit Party, the DUP and the UUP, whereas Labour, Liberal Democrats, SNP, PC, SDLP and Greens are more to the left and less Authoritarian. I regard ‘progressive’ as those parties that are NOT Authoritarian/Right.

  • James Fowler 30th Aug '21 - 8:51pm

    David Cameron on the authoritarian right? I would agree that coalition with the current Tory party should be avoided by a liberal party. However, the situation in 2010 was very different, with Labour equally, if not more, authoritarian.

  • Brad Barrows 30th Aug '21 - 9:22pm

    @James Fowler
    Check political compass.org for the United Kingdom 2010 – I think you will see why the Liberal Democrat tie up with the Conservatives was all about arithmetic rather than political positions. The massive wipe out of Liberal Democrat MPs in 2015 was entirely deserved. I trust the lesson has been learned so that such a political blunder will never be repeated should the Liberal Democrats ever find itself in a similar situation.

  • Nonconformistradical 31st Aug '21 - 8:27am

    @Brad Barrows
    If you look at https://politicalcompass.org/uk2015 – the 2015 GE – it has Labour near the middle of the authoritarian right part. Not exactly progressive by your definition.

  • Laurence Cox 31st Aug '21 - 12:35pm

    @Brad Barrows, Nonconformistradical

    Political Compass is a load of rubbish. Their method of determining Left-Right and Authoritarian-Libertarian is opaque and their assumptions have never been subject to peer-review. They don’t even realise that Liberal is not the same as Libertarian. In contrast, this two-dimensional analysis recalled in https://www.flourish.org/2016/07/on-finding-political-axes-using-maths/ by Chris Lightfoot and Tom Steinberg did the job properly, using a statistically balanced sample of YouGov panellists. It only covers the three largest parties at the time (2005) and would benefit from being repeated, but it is still light-years ahead of Political Compass (just look at the badpolitics discussion on Reddit to get a flavour of the criticisms of it).

  • James Fowler 30th Aug ’21 – 8:51pm………….David Cameron on the authoritarian right? I would agree that coalition with the current Tory party should be avoided by a liberal party. However, the situation in 2010 was very different…….

    I’d certainly consider the introduction of secret courts the action of the authoritarian right..
    As did Philippe Sands, Dinah Rose and Jo Shaw all of whom, among others, resigned from this party over the issue….. The LibDem leadership supported this law, whipped their MPs to vote for it and, if memory serves, all but seven of our MPs supported the bill..
    Things were indeed different in 2010 but not in the way you imply!

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