British PM under fire over reduced force numbers on her watch as election campaign resumes
Britain’s election campaign resumed in earnest yesterday with Prime Minister Theresa May’s opinion poll lead narrowing and the focus firmly on her security record following the attack by jihadis who killed seven people in the heart of London.
In Britain’s third Islamist attack in as many months, three men rammed a van into pedestrians on London Bridge before running into the busy Borough Market area where they slit the throats of people and stabbed them indiscriminately on Saturday night.
All three attackers were shot dead by the police, who have since made at least a dozen arrests in east London and were carrying out further raids early yesterday.
A parliamentary election takes place on Thursday – and the government was working closely with police on security for the vote, May’s spokeswoman said.
With the London attack dominating attention, a reduction in the number of police officers in England and Wales by almost 20 000 during May’s six years as interior minister – from 2010 to last year – shot to the top of the election agenda.
The Conservative Party leader did not answer repeated questions on the cutbacks, but said counter-terrorism budgets had been protected and that the police had the powers they needed.
Her main opponent, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, backed calls for her resignation over the cuts in the police force.
Corbyn said many people were worried that May was at the Home Office, presided over the cuts in police numbers and “was now saying that we have a problem”.
The Conservatives’ lead over Labour has narrowed markedly from 20 points or more when she called the election in April to a range between one and 12 points, although they are still widely expected to win a majority.
The pound rose on currency markets, which favour May over Corbyn, after the latest ICM poll – taken between June 2 and June 4 and published yesterday – suggested that the Conservatives were ahead by 11 points.
After chairing a meeting of the government’s crisis response committee yesterday, May said the official threat level in Britain remained at severe – meaning an attack was highly likely – and that additional security measures were in place.
“This was an attack on London and the United Kingdom, but it was also an attack on the free world,” she said.
A Canadian and a French national are known to have died on Saturday night and 48 people were injured, 21 critically.
The rampage came less than two weeks after a suicide bomber killed 22 children and adults at a concert of US singer Ariana Grande in Manchester.
In March, five people died after a man drove a van into pedestrians on London’s Westminster Bridge and then stabbed a policeman.
The Islamic State (IS) militant group, which is losing territory in Syria and Iraq to an offensive backed by a US-led coalition, claimed responsibility for the London Bridge attack, though it is unclear whether the attackers had links to IS.
London police chief Cressida Dick said that, while some of the recent attacks in Britain had international dimensions, they had a largely domestic centre of gravity.
Both the Westminster and Manchester attackers were born in Britain.
With the issue of security now dominating the election agenda, May responded to the latest violence by saying Britain should be tougher in stamping out Islamist extremism.
The police response to the onslaught, which saw officers shoot dead the attackers within eight minutes of police receiving the first call, has been widely praised.
But that did not stop the questions to May about police numbers during her time as interior minister.
Official data shows officer numbers decreased every year that she was in the post. The number of authorised firearms officers in England and Wales fell to just under 5 700 last year from 7 000 in 2010.
Asked whether she regretted presiding over the cuts, May only responded that London’s Metropolitan Police was well resourced and had powerful counter-terrorism capabilities.
“We have protected counter-terrorism policing budgets and we have also provided funding for an increase in the number of armed police officers,” she said.