May's Journey to Zero Tolerance as Terror Dominates Election

  • In her own words, May’s rhetoric on terror evolved in 3 months
  • From decrying voices of hate to declaring ‘enough is enough’

May Says U.K. Faces ‘New Trend’ of Terrorism

The London Bridge terror attacks are the third since Conservative Theresa May became prime minister and the second during campaigning for the June 8 U.K. general election.

Her “enough is enough” address to the nation on Sunday morning marked a change from her previous responses to terror delivered at a lectern outside her 10 Downing Street residence. Alongside praise for the emergency services and calls for getting on with daily life, she was overtly political and her opponent responded in kind.

Theresa May leaves number 10 Downing Street on June 4.

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

“While we have made significant progress in recent years, there is -- to be frank -- far too much tolerance of extremism in our country,” May said in a veiled dig at her rival, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, who after the Manchester bombing suggested Britain’s intervention in wars abroad had fueled the risk of terrorism at home.

While it is unclear how the attack and its aftermath might affect the result of the election, the unspoken convention that deadly terror attacks shouldn’t be used in political campaigns has been been laid to one side. May said the time had come to have “some difficult, and often embarrassing, conversations.”

Corbyn used a speech on Sunday night to argue that her proposal for “difficult conversations” must start with tackling Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that “have funded and fueled extremist ideology.”

Here is a guide in their own words to how both responded to each attack.

March 22 Parliament Attack

A lone attacker drove his car across Westminster Bridge, mounting the sidewalk and mowing down pedestrians before running into the precincts of parliament and stabbing a police officer. He was shot dead. Five people died. May, who was in the House of Commons at the time of the attack and was whisked away in a Jaguar, convened the government’s emergency Cobra committee and appeared that evening, dressed in black, outside her central London office to make a statement. She said not to allow the “voices of hate and evil to drive us apart.”

May’s message: “Tomorrow morning, Parliament will meet as normal. We will come together as normal,” she said. “Londoners -- and others from around the world who have come here to visit this great city -- will get up and go about their day as normal. They will board their trains, they will leave their hotels, they will walk these streets, they will live their lives.”

What Corbyn said: “I know that Londoners and people across the country will stand together in defense of our values and diversity.”

May 22 Manchester Bombing

A British-born son of Libyan refugees detonated a bomb in Manchester at 10:30 p.m. as teenagers, parents and their young children left a pop concert. Twenty-two people died. May stayed up most of the night coordinating the response to the attack and appeared outside her residence the following morning and later in the evening to announce the threat level was being raised to “critical,” the highest level.

May’s message: “We will take every measure available to us and provide every additional resource we can to the police and the security services as they work to protect the public. And while we mourn the victims of last night’s appalling attack, we stand defiant. The spirit of Manchester and the spirit of Britain is far mightier than the sick plots of depraved terrorists, that is why the terrorists will never win and we will prevail.”

What Corbyn said: “This is an appalling act of violence against people, and it must be totally and unreservedly and completely condemned. We must support those people who have suffered so much. In these circumstances we have to come together.”

May 26 Campaign Hiatus

Campaigning was then suspended for three days and, when it restarted, Corbyn wore a black tie as he delivered a speech on U.K. foreign policy in central London. “The ‘war on terror’ is simply not working,” he said as he made the case for an overhaul of foreign policy and criticized May’s government for squeezing police budgets.

“Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home,” said Corbyn, a long-time critic of U.K. foreign interventions.

At a meeting of Group of Seven leaders in Sicily, May was swift and brutal in her response as polls showed her lead slipping. “I have been here today at the G-7 working with other international leaders to fight terrorism. At the same time Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault,” May said, breaking with the show of cross-party unity after the attack.

“The choice people face in the general election has just become starker,” she said. “It’s a choice between me working constantly to protect the national interest and working for security and Jeremy Corbyn who frankly isn’t up to the job.”

Election Home Stretch

On June 2, in a question and answer sessions with voters on BBC TV, Corbyn was repeatedly asked about his failure to condemn bombings by the Irish Republican Army, a terrorist group that carried out a series of attacks in Britain. He was not asked about Islamist extremism.

The following day, at around 10 p.m., a white van drove into pedestrians in central London. Three men with fake suicide vests began to knife people on a Saturday night out. Seven were killed before the three attackers were shot dead by police, eight minutes after they were called.

This time, May cut to the chase as Donald Trump tweeted from the U.S. that “we must stop being politically correct.”

Corbyn, in the meantime, went after May’s record as home secretary and the cuts to police numbers: “You cannot protect the public on the cheap. The police and security services must get the resources they need, not 20,000 police cuts. Theresa May was warned by the Police Federation, but she accused them of ‘crying wolf.’”

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