11222017What's Hot:

May prepares crackdown on ‘evil’ extremism

LONDON — The attack was painfully familiar but the response was different. Theresa May struck a harder, angrier — more political — note within hours.

Demanding a radical change in Britain’s attitude to extremism — and attacking those who she said had been “tolerant” of it — was far starker than Westminster’s political class had expected. It was an intervention that will shape the coming days before the general election and almost certainly what will come after in ways that were hard to imagine before terrorists struck at London Bridge on Saturday night.

For the third time as prime minister, May was forced Sunday to make the short, lonely walk from the door of Number 10 Downing Street to a lectern outside to address the nation about a terrorist attack — the killing of seven people and wounding of another 48 by three attackers on London Bridge and in Borough Market, across the river from the city’s financial district.

It has almost become a ritual. First comes news of an attack, then the confusion — “don’t jump to conclusions,” “nothing is confirmed,” “terrorism suspected” — and then, after hours of painful eye-witness accounts and rolling 24-hour news, the prime minister’s address. Usually, the public is told to carry on as normal, to not let the terrorists win. Prayers for the victims are offered along with praise for the emergency services.

May’s speech today did all of that, but it also struck a very different tone. There were shades of Donald Trump’s criticism of “radical Islam” when she explicitly attacked the “evil ideology of Islamist extremism.”

“We cannot and must not pretend that things can continue as they are. Things need to change … enough is enough” — Theresa May

Most controversial, however, was her claim that there had been “far too much tolerance of extremism” in the U.K. — a passage which infuriated Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters, who saw it as a direct attack on the Labour leader during a supposed suspension of election campaigning.

But May was insistent. “We cannot and must not pretend that things can continue as they are. Things need to change … enough is enough.”

May’s uncompromising address aimed to capture the mood of a nation which has found itself again rocked by a deadly attack just four days from an era-defining general election.

‘Far more robust’

For the first time in a generation, this week’s vote throws into question many of the fundamentals of Britain’s post-war political settlement in what looks to many on the outside as something of an identity crisis.

With Britain’s future relationship with Europe as well as the future of Scotland in the union already on the ballot paper, Corbyn’s surge in the polls has added question marks over other pillars of foreign and domestic policy — from the U.S. “special relationship,” to Britain’s future as a nuclear power, its continued support for NATO and the very basis of its flexible, free-market economic model.

In her speech Sunday, May threw into the mix Britain’s increasingly frayed “tolerance” for cultural diversity, mirroring trends on the Continent and in the U.S, as she laid out the threat facing the U.K. in stark terms.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May addresses the media following a COBRA meeting | Leon Neal/Getty Images

May said that notwithstanding the Westminster, Manchester and now London Bridge terrorist attacks, the police and security services had stopped five other “credible plots” in the last three months.

The prime minister said the three attacks were not connected in terms of their planning and execution. However, she said the government believed the U.K. was now experiencing “a new trend in the threat we face.”

“Terrorism breeds terrorism, and perpetrators are inspired to attack not only on the basis of carefully-constructed plots after years of planning and training — and not even as lone attackers radicalized online — but by copying one another and often using the crudest of means of attack.”

In one passage of her address, May chided the country’s supposed uneasiness about confronting extremism. The PM said the country needed to “far more robust” in identifying and stamping out extremist views.

This would “require some difficult and often embarrassing conversations,” she said — a plea almost incomprehensibly English to the outside observer, designed to strike deep into the heart of the awkward provincial British psyche.

American newspapers had sparked condemnation in the U.K. throughout the day for headlines declaring London “under siege” and “reeling,” but after the second terrorist strike on the country during the short six-week campaign alone there is a sense of British democracy being under attack.

The prime minister joined the almost universal chorus of opposition to any suggestion that the election should be delayed — insisting this would amount to a victory for the attackers.

“As a mark of respect two political parties have suspended our national campaigns for today,” she said. “But violence can never be allowed to disrupt the democratic process. So those campaigns will resume in full tomorrow. And the general election will go ahead as planned on Thursday.”

‘Failed to protect’

However such was the political nature of her address in Downing Street that Labour said they felt it breached the spirit of the agreement to cease campaign hostilities for a day. Opposition figures said the four-point plan to tackle extremism that she laid out on the steps of No 10 amounted to clear electioneering. Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend the timing was wrong. “We need to do more but we also need to be sensitive to the fact that there are people who are only just discovering that their loved ones have died,” she said.

May said the ideology of Islamist extremism needed to be defeated worldwide, terrorists needed to be denied “safe spaces” online and at home currently granted by passive tolerance and finally, the police and security services might need new powers.

Corbyn’s less than whole-hearted support for police “shoot-to-kill” powers may also be raised over the next few days.

In usual circumstances, such a strong response to a terrorist attack might be expected to see a rallying of support around a prime minister. But in 2017 Conservative campaign insiders will be aware that the opposite may well happen.

Instead of backing a further ratcheting up in the war of words against radical Islamism, voters may prefer a quiet life in which Britain does not engage in foreign wars in a bid to make itself less of a target. In a change election, May’s promise to rip up the rules may sound like more of the same and voters might prefer Corbyn’s genuine radicalism.

May is also vulnerable to the accusation that she has been in charge of Britain’s police and security services as prime minister and previously home secretary. Matt Zarb-Cousin, Corbyn’s former press spokesman, was quick to make this point: “Theresa May has been Home Secretary and Prime Minister for the past 7 years,” he wrote on Twitter. “She has failed to protect the British people from terrorism.”

May and her team in Conservative campaign headquarters will, though, be confident of piling further pressure on Corbyn over his long-standing relationship with Irish republicanism and Palestinian terrorist groups which caused him problems in Friday’s heated Question Time debate on the BBC.

A cordon in East Ham in east London, following a raid on a property | Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

Corbyn’s less than whole-hearted support for police “shoot-to-kill” powers may also be raised over the next few days. All three of the suspected terrorist attackers on Saturday night were killed by police gunmen within eight minutes of first being called.

May finished her address this morning with a plea for the country to “come together” to “defeat our enemies.”

Within minutes she was began to get attacked for politicizing the terrorist attack to win votes because she was worried about the momentum behind Corbyn’s campaign.

Related stories on these topics:
View Comments



Source: POLITICO – TOP Stories

comments powered by HyperComments

More on the topic