Wednesday 29 January 2020

Parties battle to defend record on security ahead of election

Prime Minister Theresa May and husband Philip May at a rally in Slough while on the General Election campaign trail. Photo: PA
Prime Minister Theresa May and husband Philip May at a rally in Slough while on the General Election campaign trail. Photo: PA

Kate Holton

Two days from a national election, Britain's ruling Conservatives and opposition Labour Party battled to defend their records on security after an Islamist attack that killed seven people in London upended the campaign.

After police named two of the attackers and revealed that one was previously known to security agencies, UK Prime Minister Theresa May faced further questions about her record overseeing cuts to police numbers when she was interior minister.

The latest opinion poll, by Survation for ITV, had the Conservatives' lead over Labour narrowing to just one point from six points in the same poll a week earlier.

However, the consensus among pollsters remains that Mrs May's party, which has been in government since 2010, will win a majority.

Another poll conducted yesterday had the Tories enjoying a seven-point lead over Labour.

Opinium Research's final poll before June 8 puts the Tories unchanged on 43pc with Labour down one point since last week on 36pc.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a rally in Birmingham while on the General Election campaign trail. Photo: PA
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a rally in Birmingham while on the General Election campaign trail. Photo: PA

It is the first Opinium study of the campaign which has seen the Tory lead increase rather than shrink and adds to a mixed picture painted by pollsters in recent weeks.

The poll suggested the campaign has damaged the reputation of the prime minister, despite a likely Conservative win, with Mrs May's net approval ratings falling from plus 21pc at the start of the campaign to just plus 5pc on average across all voters.

In Britain's third Islamist attack in as many months, three men rammed a van into pedestrians on London Bridge on Saturday evening before running into the bustling Borough Market area, where they slit throats and stabbed people.

The rampage followed a suicide bombing that killed 22 adults and children at a pop concert in Manchester two weeks ago, and an attack in March when five people died after a car was driven into pedestrians on London's Westminster Bridge.

Before the recent attacks, Brexit and domestic issues such as the state of the health service and the cost of care for the elderly had dominated the UK election campaign.

When Mrs May called the election in April, her Conservatives led in opinion polls by 20 points or more.

But an announcement - made before the Manchester and London Bridge attacks - that they planned to make some of the elderly pay more for their care saw that lead start to shrink, to between one and 12 points now.

Security has become the number one issue and both main parties issued statements yesterday portraying their own positions on policing and intelligence as the most robust.

During a round of media interviews, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson faced a barrage of questions about whether there had been security failures and about past police cuts. He sought to deflect the pressure onto Labour, accusing them of weakness.

Asked about repeated criticism of London Mayor Sadiq Khan's response to the attack by US President Donald Trump, Mr Johnson said he did not think there was any reason to cancel Mr Trump's planned state visit to Britain.

As interior minister from 2010 to 2016, Mrs May oversaw a drop of 20,000 in the number of police officers in England and Wales, which Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has said should never have happened and warranted her resignation.

The MI5 domestic intelligence service has seen its budget increased and has plans to expand its numbers to 5,000 officers from 4,000 over the next five years, MI5 chief Andrew Parker said last year.

Mr Corbyn himself has faced repeated questioning over his own past views and actions on security matters.

He has been criticised for voting against counter-terrorism legislation and expressing reservations about police responding to attacks with "shoot-to-kill" tactics.

Since the attack, he has said he fully supported the actions of the police.

He has also faced fierce criticism for past sympathies with the Palestinian group Hamas, Lebanon's Hezbollah, and Sinn Féin, the political arm of the IRA.

While the political debate raged, the investigation into Saturday's attack continued, with police searching an address in Ilford, east London, in the early hours yesterday.

Police had arrested 12 people on Sunday in Barking, also in the east of the city, but said late on Monday all had been released without charge.

Irish Independent

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