David Cameron has rushed back from his family holiday in Italy to deal with the riots that have engulfed London before last night spreading to Liverpool and Birmingham.

The prime minister is to consider emergency measures to help contain the rioting. Curfews, involving the army and allowing police to use water cannons have been suggested my MPs.

Theresa May, the home secretary, indicated that such measures were unlikely to be adopted but also refused to rule any of them out.

"The British model of policing has been different [from that used on the continent]. It has been based on consent with local communities," she said.

But she said that ministers would be listening to the police because they wanted to hear "what [the police] think they need in order to do their job".

Cameron and May were both on holiday 24 hours ago, but May returned to London on Monday afternoon and Cameron returned to the UK in the early hours of Tuesday morning on a special RAF flight.

The escalation in violence on Monday night persuaded the prime minister to fly home early from Tuscany, where he was halfway through a two-week family holiday. The Downing Street announcement at 9pm on Monday came hours after No 10 had said that Cameron had no plans to return home early.

Cameron is chairing the emergency Cobra meeting, where Tim Godwin, the acting Metropolitan police commissioner, will brief ministers on the disorder that has now gone on for three nights.