Theresa May's election campaign is in big trouble when Jeremy Corbyn can turn national security into a strength

The cutting of 20,000 police officers on the Prime Minister's watch has become a millstone around her neck – and one that the Labour leader is using to his advantage

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The Independent Online

A solid, strong Prime Minister with six years experience as Home Secretary under her belt. An untried Opposition Leader whose only experience on the front bench is sitting on the one in Clissold Park. 

She is talking tough, promising new laws and longer sentences. He has opposed every piece of anti-terrorism legislation and in the past has equivocated over a shoot-to-kill policy by the police. He refuses to say that he would use Britain’s nuclear deterrent, even if we were under attack.

We have suffered three terrorist attacks in three months, the last one brought to a mercifully swift end by police shooting to kill. So who would come out in the political battle between the two parties? The Conservatives, traditionally the party of law and order, or Labour, apparently vulnerable on the issue under a left-wing leader accused by the Tories of being “soft on terrorism”?

Normally, it would be a one-way street. With security dominating the election and just three days to go, the Tories would be confident that the issue would work strongly to their advantage.

Jeremy Corbyn tells Theresa May 'you cannot protect the public on the cheap’

But this election is not normal. It is topsy-turvy. Theresa May’s image as a “strong and stable” leader has been dented during her unhappy, uncertain campaign. Moreover, she has a record to defend on security: the cutting of 20,000 police officers on her watch has become a millstone around her neck, and one that Jeremy Corbyn is now using to his advantage. It might be the only statistic that “cuts through” to many voters in the wake of the terror attacks – although they might also notice that the number of armed police fell from 6,976 in 2010 to 5,639 last year.

In a speech in London today, May outlined the choice of two leaders facing the country on Thursday. She focused heavily on Brexit, while Corbyn’s record on terrorism and security was understandably in her sights too.

The speech was delivered well, but she was very uncomfortable in the question and answer session with journalists that followed. Seven of the 19 questions asked of the Prime Minister were about police cuts. May went into her robotic "refuse to answer directly" mode. She was never going to admit the cuts were a mistake, that they should be reversed or that she was wrong to tell the Police Federation in 2015 to stop “crying wolf” over the slimming down of the police force. But she was, nevertheless, very much on the defensive.

The event showed that playing the security card against Corbyn does not necessarily pay dividends, as the Tories hoped at the start of the campaign. Perhaps voters had already factored his record into his share price, so negative Tory attacks on someone who has grown in stature in their eyes during the election have less impact.

Corbyn could have handled the Trident question better in Friday’s BBC Question Time programme. He should have said then what he says now about shoot-to-kill – that he would always do what is necessary to keep the country safe. But overall Labour’s lines on defence in this election have been much tighter, a huge improvement on the way the party performed under Corbyn before the campaign began.

Some voters will still distrust Labour on security; they may decide to support the devil they know on Thursday. But by focusing on the police cuts, Labour can at least partially neutralise its weakness on security and, crucially, switch the spotlight on to austerity and public services. The choice between strong leadership and an end to austerity, at a time when people are tiring of it, is very different to strong versus weak leadership.

Remarkably, with security at the forefront of the election, Labour under Corbyn is still in the game.