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Manchester attack a tough test for UK leader Theresa May

Associated Press logo Associated Press 25/05/2017 By JILL LAWLESS, Associated Press
British Prime Minister Theresa May addresses the media outside 10 Downing Street, London, Tuesday May 23, 2017, the day after an apparent suicide bomber attacked an Ariana Grande concert as it ended Monday night, killing over a dozen of people among a panicked crowd of young concertgoers. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham) © The Associated Press British Prime Minister Theresa May addresses the media outside 10 Downing Street, London, Tuesday May 23, 2017, the day after an apparent suicide bomber attacked an Ariana Grande concert as it ended Monday night, killing over a dozen of people among a panicked crowd of young concertgoers. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

MANCHESTER, England — It's a moment all leaders dread: Standing on television to tell the nation there has been a bombing — and another attack might be coming.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, an unelected leader in office for less than a year, handled this week's bombing in Manchester with a somber dignity that reassured many Britons, and will likely give her a boost when voters go to the polls on June 8.

"When you get an attack of this kind there's a sort of 'rally round the flag' effect," said Rob Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University. "Support for all the institutions goes up, and normally support for the incumbent president or prime minister goes up."

May is Britain's surprise prime minister, selected by the Conservative Party after Prime Minister David Cameron unexpectedly resigned in the wake of last June's vote to leave the European Union. Monday's attack halted campaigning for an election called by May in a bid to increase her parliamentary majority and strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations with the EU.

Britons are still getting to know their leader, and 60-year-old May so far has two standout traits: a love of boldly patterned shoes and a complete absence of personal flamboyance.

Before the attack, she was criticized for her pedestrian style in campaign speeches and interviews, which relied heavily on a near-robotic repetition of the slogan "strong and stable government."

Suddenly, that stolidity looks like an asset.

"Stability, calmness, order — the kind of things that Theresa May is good at personifying — may have looked like inflexibility or evasiveness in the campaign context of a week ago," Ford said. "They don't now."

When May addressed the nation after a bomb killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert on Monday — Britain's deadliest attack since the 2005 London transit bombings — she appeared to speak from the heart with simple, well-chosen words.

She condemned the "appalling, sickening cowardice" of an attack on children enjoying a pop concert, and praised the emergency services and "the ordinary men and women who put concerns about their own safety to one side and rushed to help."

"The attempt to divide us met countless acts of kindness that brought people closer together, and in the days ahead those must be the things we remember," she said.

Tom Peck, a political correspondent for The Independent newspaper and often a critic of the Conservatives, called her words "pitch perfect."

On Tuesday night, May had to deliver more bad news, announcing that the country's terrorism threat level was being raised to "critical" — defined as meaning an attack is imminent — for the first time since 2007.

May didn't make the decision herself — the level is set by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center at the security service MI5. But she will be held responsible for the move, which sees troops deployed at high-profile public sites in place of police.

May's past makes her better qualified than most prime ministers to face this test. She was Britain's home secretary between 2010 and 2016, in charge of borders, policing and counterterrorism. She has deep familiarity with the threat from violent extremists and how to respond.

But she also oversaw big cuts to police budgets during Cameron's austerity-minded government. The number of police officers in England and Wales fell by nearly 20,000 while May was home secretary, and critics say she wouldn't have to send troops into the streets now if she hadn't laid off so many police officers back then.

Once the shock of the attack has subsided, May will also face questions about the intelligence failings that allowed bomber Salman Abedi, who was known to authorities, to carry out a deadly attack.

The aftermath of the bombing has also strained Britain's relationship with its most important ally, the U.S.

Sensitive information about the case, including the release of the bomber's name before Manchester police officially announced it and detailed crime scene photos, has appeared in U.S. media.

May is due to meet President Donald Trump at a NATO summit in Brussels Thursday, and said she would make clear "that intelligence which is shared between our law enforcement agencies must remain secure."

At home, Britain's election campaign resumes at a local level on Thursday, and nationally on Friday.

Before Monday, polls had suggested a tightening of the race after May's opponents seized on an unpopular Conservative proposal to change the way pensioners pay for long-term care. The opposition labeled it a "dementia tax," and May was forced to make an embarrassing partial reversal of the policy.

But many expect May's steady performance after the bombing to give her momentum.

The attack has pushed terrorism to the top of the agenda, displacing the country's agonizing over Brexit. It may underscore impressions that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is not tough enough to lead the country. The Conservatives have already tried to portray him as soft on terrorism, bringing up his past support for Ireland's republican movement and ambivalence when asked to condemn the IRA.

Still, in Manchester, some feel she didn't do enough to support the city, traditionally a Labour stronghold, after the bombing.

May visited the day after the attack, meeting police and other first responders and visiting hospitalized victims. But some noted her absence from a public vigil attended by other senior government figures and opposition leader Corbyn.

"That was very surprising," software developer Saleem Akhtar said.

"I was a die-hard Conservative, and I don't think, personally, that Theresa May has really been seen in the public light much. So that has made me think twice."

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