Only 50 days stand between Theresa May’s snap election call and Theresa May’s promise to rip up human rights laws in the name of fighting terrorism.
What was supposed to be an easy election campaign to consolidate the British prime minister’s power ahead of Brexit negotiations has ended on a complicated, hard-edged note.
In the countdown to Thursday’s election, back-to-back hateful attacks in Manchester and London swerved the U.K. into a difficult conversation.
How did the attackers slip by the authorities despite the warnings from friends and acquaintances? How should the country combat and prevent home-grown extremism? Are the country’s foreign policy or war efforts to blame for extremism back in the U.K., as Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn suggested?
The campaign trail, strewn with half-truths and dog-whistle slogans, is a terrible place to try to answer such complex questions. And yet given the timing of the attacks, there has been no avoiding it.
May launched the snap election campaign in mid-April, hoping to boost her party before Brexit talks began in earnest. Discussion about the deadly attacks shifted the focus away from May’s future as Brexit negotiator-in-chief, to her past as the tough but humble home secretary.
May served as home secretary under then-prime minister David Cameron, who she later replaced after winning leadership of the Conservative Party.
Her term as home secretary offers a variable history, which includes consistent cuts in the number of police officers, bad relations with the police federation, as well as a dubious pilot campaign targeting illegal immigrants that saw billboards driven around with the words “go home” or face arrest.
The campaign was eventually ruled misleading by an advertising watchdog and suspended indefinitely.
To try to contain the damage from some of that history just days ahead of the vote, May first used tough talk—”enough is enough” — and a package of measures aimed at fighting extremists to try to regain momentum in what was already a lacklustre campaign.
Tough talk on security
But after repeated questions about the cuts to policing under her watch as home secretary, May chose to go nuclear on Tuesday night with a promise not to let human rights get in the way of doing more to keep the country safe.
She said that meant longer prison sentences for people convicted of terrorist offences, and making it easier for authorities to “deport foreign terrorist suspects back to their own countries.”
“I mean doing more to restrict the freedom and movement of terrorist suspects when we have enough evidence to know they are a threat, but not enough evidence to prosecute them in full in court,” she told a Tory crowd.
“And if our human rights laws get in the way of doing it, we will change the law so we can do it,” she added, to much applause.
Critics accused May of appealing to the fringes, and of contradicting her own advice in light of the attacks — to carry on as normal “in accordance with our values.”
May’s history — on policing in particular — was a contentious topic in the closing day of the campaign.
Under May’s watch as home secretary, the number of police officers dropped by 21,500. She defends her record, including promises to up the number of armed police and giving them the power to shoot to kill.
But it’s the drop in the number of community officers in particular that opponents see as a glaring blind spot in the effort to recognize and deal early with issues like local crime and radicalization.
The Labour Party took a page out of the book of security-minded Tories and offered early on to restore 10,000 of those police officers if they are elected to form government. The Labour Party just rolled out yet another attack ad targeting May and highlighting that promise.
The Monday after the London Bridge attack, the local Labour MP saw a surge in volunteers.
“Policing and security issues are coming up more, as a result of the attack,” said Neil Coyle outside his campaign office minutes from where the attacks took place. “I think [May] has a lot more to answer, given that she’s been in … in control of the police and security services for seven years in one way or another. … Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t been.”
It may not be enough to put Corbyn in Downing Street, but the discussion has forced May to reach for a new narrative as security moved to centre stage.
Police ‘going from call to call to call’
Meanwhile, the Police Federation — no fan of the current prime minister — chimed in, renewing its call for more community-based officers.
Stretched police forces are “at breaking point in relation to pressures on day-to-day basis,” said Calum McLeod, vice-chair of the federation.
“We are fire-fighting policing at this moment in time. We’re going from call to call to call. If you’re under that pressure something is going to give.”
The pressure in the last days of the campaign has been on the candidates to prove they will be most capable of keeping Britain safe.
“Who do you trust to maintain your national security?” May asked the crowd Tuesday night. “Someone who has boasted that he has opposed every piece of anti-terror legislation since he came into Parliament, or me and the Conservatives?”
‘This is our community’
It’s the balance between taking action and preserving the British way of life that worries people like Andrew Dunn.
He’s the dean of the Southwark Cathedral, right next to London Bridge. He, too, saw the aftermath when he ran towards danger to help, only to be turned back by the police to walk the trail of injured bodies on the church’s doorstep.
He hasn’t been able to get back to the cathedral, now behind the police cordon, since.
“This is our community, and you feel it so keenly,” he said in an interview.
“We don’t want one the effects of [Saturday’s] attack … to be a loss of the very thing we’re trying to defend. Because that would mean that the terrorists have actually succeeded in what they were trying to do.”
Security and policing will be on the minds of voters as they go to the polls, he added.
It’s not quite what Theresa May wanted.