Theresa May should not be criticised for politicising her speech on the London terror attack

Critics have argued her speech was tantamount to campaigning but the Prime Minister had no choice and nothing she could have said would have satisfied the public

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The Independent Online

In her speech this morning, Theresa May praised the work of the police, ambulance service and members of the public in dealing with the attack on London Bridge on Saturday evening. She then declared that it was time to change the way Britain deals with terrorism. 

Her four-point plan –  including closing down safe spaces for extremists in the real world and online – certainly read like an anti-terrorism policy agenda. These were new policies thrust into the vacuum of a suspended election campaign, while other party leaders, including Jeremy Corbyn, have been left to pay tribute to emergency services and express horror at the attack – the parties had agreed to suspend election campaigns for the day.

The Labour-supporting commentator Owen Jones, in an interview with BBC News, accused the Prime Minister of “violating” the terms of the suspension. Others, including Labour sources, have added their criticism, saying May was using the trappings of her office – including standing behind a lectern emblazoned with the prime ministerial crest, in front of the door of Number 10 – as a cloak to campaign for the Conservatives.

But it is also true that Labour figures have raised the problem of cuts to the police, and on Sunday night the Labour leader was set to make a speech in Carlisle setting out his full response to the attack and what a Labour government would do about it  – this also sounds remarkably like campaigning, despite the self-imposed ban.

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May’s new tough measures to tackle what she called a “new trend” in terrorism do amount to policies. She has called for greater resources for intelligence services and police, better regulation of the internet, calling on giants like Facebook and Twitter to do more to help, less tolerance of extremism within communities, and stiffer custodial sentences for would-be perpetrators. This is, indeed, quite the authoritarian policy platform.

But the criticism fails to recognise the reality of the situation. What was she supposed to do? People waking up on Sunday morning to yet another attack, the third in as many months, needed reassurance that something was being done – beyond the usual appeals for unity and resilience. As she herself said, things cannot simply return to normal.

If May had stuck to the first half of her statement, she would have been accused of failing to get to grips with the problem of extremism. Should she have said: “I am going to take action but I cannot tell you until tomorrow?” That would have been absurd. So soon after Manchester, there are concerns and fears that need to be allayed.

In Britain it is unprecedented in modern times for one terrorist attack to have been carried out during an election campaign, let alone two. Experiencing three in fairly quick succession has shaken the country. As we are in uncharted territory, there is no rulebook to follow. But it seems like May cannot win and would have faced criticism whatever she had said. 

There is one international precedent: the 2004 Madrid bombings were carried out on the eve of a general election, which the incumbent prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, went on to lose after being criticised for failing to blame Islamists for the atrocity. Perhaps May and her circle were mindful of his weak response when drawing up her reaction overnight. But in the end, even with campaigning suspended, it was always going to be impossible to separate politics from terrorist attacks like this. Given the terrorists want to undermine democracy, maybe carrying on with politics as normal is how it should be.