London: Britons are about to vote in an election that was supposed to be dominated by Brexit. After two deadly terror attacks in as many weeks, it has become a battle over security.
Following terror attacks in Manchester and London that killed 29 people, voters are anxiously aware of the threat the country faces from international terrorism, and demanding to know why authorities failed to apprehend suspects whose extremist leanings were well-known.
Prime Minister Theresa May said Tuesday that when Britons vote on Thursday with security on their minds, they should ask: “Who can they trust?”
When the campaign began, May must have been confident the answer would be her and the Conservatives, rather than the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran socialist who has opposed British military interventions and tougher anti-terrorism laws for decades.
But the attacks have raised awkward questions about May’s own record in government. Opponents have lambasted her for cutting police numbers by 20,000 when she was interior minister between 2010 and 2016. She also was responsible for security services that failed to keep tabs on Khuram Butt, one of three men who went on a vehicle-and-knife rampage around London Bridge on Saturday.
The 27-year-old was a very public Islamic radical who had appeared on a TV documentary titled The Jihadis Next Door. Scotland Yard’s counterterrorism chief, Mark Rowley, said Butt was investigated by officers in 2015 but they found no evidence he was planning an attack and he was “prioritized in the lower echelons of our investigative work”.
The London Bridge attack is the third in Britain this year, following a vehicle and knife rampage near the UK Parliament in March, which killed five, and the 22 May bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in which 22 people died. In every case, the attackers had come to authorities’ attention but were not considered a major threat.
May insisted Tuesday that her government had “protected the counterterrorism policing budget,” increased the number of armed police officers (after several years when it fell) and funded the intelligence services to hire 1,900 more staff.
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She vowed to crack down on terrorism suspects if she wins the election— “and if our human rights laws stop us from doing it, we will change the laws so we can do it.”
Critics accused May of posturing. London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a former Labour lawmaker, said the city would lose thousands more police officers under Conservative plans to trim spending.
“Cuts on this scale would make it harder to foil future terrorist attacks on our city,” Khan said.
This election has not gone according to script. May called a snap poll in hope of increasing the Conservative majority in Parliament, saying that would strengthen Britain’s hand in European Union exit negotiations.
Polls gave her reason for confidence, showing the Conservatives with a lead of as much as 20 points over Labour.
But even before the attacks, the polls were narrowing. May’s campaigning style was criticized as stiff and lacklustre, and some Conservative policy proposals got a hostile reception, including a plan to make pensioners pay for more of their care.
Corbyn, meanwhile, emerged as a British Bernie Sanders, energizing a youthful base with his unflashy style and proposals to increase government spending after seven years of austerity.
The latest opinion polls vary between a solid Conservative lead and a dead heat. The difference depends largely on the predicted size of turnout among young people, traditionally the least likely to vote.
In the final days of the campaign, May’s Conservatives have increased their attacks on Corbyn’s security record. He opposed British military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and shared platforms with Irish republicans in the years when the IRA was setting off bombs in Britain.
As Labour’s hopes of winning the election—or at least denying May a big majority—rise, Corbyn has tried to dispel his image as a peacenik.
He said after Saturday’s attack that a Labour government would give police and security services “the resources they need.”
He promised to give “full authority for the police to use whatever force is necessary to protect and save life.” That was an attempt to defuse criticism of his previous opposition to police and military “shoot to kill” policies—controversially used against IRA suspects during the “Troubles”.
But the veteran anti-nuclear activist has squirmed when asked whether he would be willing to use Britain’s atomic weapons, and there remains a perception that security is not his strength.
Victoria Honeyman, a lecturer in politics at the University of Leeds, said Corbyn gave some the impression “that he wouldn’t necessarily do the right thing for Britain”.
“There is a sense that he might not make a decision quickly—he might prevaricate,” Honeyman said. “Nobody wants the nuclear button pressed, but the question is whether he would make a decision you would be happy with.”