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Theresa May spars with Jeremy Corbyn on terrorism as UK election nears climax

LiveMint logoLiveMint 05-06-2017 Robert Hutton

London: UK opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn traded blows with Prime Minister Theresa May over who has the worst record on countering terrorism, as Britain’s battle with jihadists looked set to dominate the final three days of the election campaign.

Saturday night’s London Bridge attack, in which three men killed seven people and injured almost 50 others, temporarily halted campaigning. But the political truce lasted less than a day as Labour and May’s Conservatives tore up any notion of entente and swapped barbs following the third deadly terrorist attack in Britain in three months.

May outlined a far-reaching plan for tackling extremism — in comments that Labour claimed were politically loaded — and then Corbyn criticized the prime minister’s record of overseeing cuts to police numbers and for failing to stop the foreign financing of terrorism.

“You cannot protect the public on the cheap,” Corbyn said in a speech in Carlisle, northern England, on Sunday evening. “The police and security services must get the resources they need, not 20,000 police cuts. Theresa May was warned by the Police Federation, but she accused them of ‘crying wolf.’”

The Labour leader accused May of covering up a report on foreign support for extremism and said her proposal for “difficult conversations” must start with tackling Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that “have funded and fuelled extremist ideology.”

The Tories hit back within an hour. Security minister Ben Wallace accused Corbyn of “hastily” arranging his speech in order to “run from his record on counter-terrorism,” which he said included giving “cover” to Irish republican groups when they “bombed and shot our citizens” before a peace deal was reached in Northern Ireland 20 years ago.

The prime minister called early elections for 8 June arguing that she needed an increased majority to strengthen her hand during the coming negotiations on leaving the European Union. Her 20-point-plus lead has shrunk as the vote neared, dragging down sterling. The pound’s reaction was fairly muted in Asian trading early Monday.

Even before London followed Manchester as the scene of the UK’s second terror attack in two weeks, her Conservatives were shining a light on Corbyn’s past relationship with extremist groups. On a BBC television special on Friday, Corbyn faced repeated questions about his closeness to Irish republican terrorist groups.

On Sunday morning, May gave a statement outside her official Downing Street residence in which she set out a series of policy measures she said will be needed to deal with a new type of terror threat. Her accusation that people “across society” are reluctant to confront terrorism went further still.

Third terror attack charts May’s journey to zero tolerance

“There is, to be frank, far too much tolerance of extremism in our country,” she said. “So we need to become far more robust in identifying it and stamping it out — across the public sector and across society. That will require some difficult and often embarrassing conversations.”

The Conservative Party declined to expand on what the prime minister meant by this. One explanation is that May was voicing a frustration held from her six years as home secretary under David Cameron, when she was unable to bring forward counter-extremism legislation.

Another is that May, who spent Saturday evening at a campaign event in north London with thousands of Hindus — telling them they were “a shining example of how a community can integrate successfully and embrace British values” — might feel there is a specific problem with Muslim integration.

Tory video

May is also most comfortable when talking about counter-extremism. On foreign trips, such as to the Group of Seven (G7) summit, it has been the subject she has preferred to focus on.

“It could be that the reason she went into so much detail is simply that it was the third attack in three months, and the debate had to move on,” said Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at Kent University.

But her message also chimed with one her party has been pushing relentlessly about her opponent — and this is how some of Corbyn’s supporters certainly saw it.

The most-viewed video on the Tories’ Facebook page is one attacking Corbyn as soft on terror. Captioned “On 9 June this man could be prime minister,” it shows a series of clips from Corbyn’s past in which he advocated cutting the military, eliminating nuclear weapons and abolishing Nato, called Hamas and Hezbollah his “friends,” and was reluctant to condemn the Irish Republican Army. The video has been viewed 5.9 million times.

Police underfunding

May’s experience cuts both ways: as home secretary from 2010 to 2016, she must bear some responsibility if the UK isn’t fighting extremism properly.

But an ICM poll last month showed 44% of voters trust May the most to “protect people from threats at home and abroad” compared with just 14% for Corbyn, while a 30-31 May YouGov survey for the Times found 40% of voters said the Tories are best equipped to handle defence and security policy, compared with 20% who chose Labour.

“Corbyn represents a lot of the things that traditional social Conservatives loathe,” said Goodwin of Kent University. Bloomberg

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