When a British Prime Minister three days before a general election faces a call to resign, and the opposition leader who makes the call is not heaped with ridicule by the whole country and the media, then something for that Prime Minister has gone seriously wrong. That is the situation Theresa May faces today.
The proximate cause is the London terror attack, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn criticising Prime Minister for cutting police numbers whilst Home Secretary despite the rising threat from ISIS, and claiming that this has exposed Britain to terrorist attacks.
There is a basis of fact in this claim. Former Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Theresa May Home Secretary after he won the British general election in May 2010, and she remained Home Secretary until she succeeded David Cameron as Prime Minister in July 2016. Between September 2010 and September 2016 – ie. during the period when Theresa May was Home Secretary – total police numbers in Britain fell by 13%, with around a third of the decrease accounted for by police officers authorised to carry firearms.
Whether this reduction in police numbers has any bearing on the ISIS terror attacks in Manchester and London is another matter. Proving that those terror attacks would not have happened if police numbers had not been cut is impossible. In that light of that, to imply that Theresa May is somehow response for the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London because as Home Secretary she cut police numbers is more than a little farfetched.
However in elections perception is all. A strong and self-confident Prime Minister would have come out fighting, denying that there has been any slackening of vigilance in the face of the threat from ISIS, and saying that the fall in police numbers was the direct result of the financial retrenchment forced on the Conservative government by the financial mismanagement of the previous Labour government.
Theresa May is not that sort of Prime Minister, as her response to Jeremy Corbyn’s attack shows. Before discussing that, I would however say that it is quite incredible to me that on an issue relating to terrorism Jeremy Corbyn – someone who in the past has opposed terror laws and has spoken of the need to talk to groups like Hamas and the IRA – should have Theresa May on the run.
Part of the explanation is Theresa May’s failure to rise to the challenge of the London terror attack. Where someone like Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair knew how to find the right words in the face of this sort of crisis, saying things which simultaneously conveyed a sense of authority and of emotional warmth, Theresa May’s peevish “enough is enough” sounds too obviously like a soundbite, and like her previous “Brexit means Brexit” comes over as banal and empty.
That exposed Theresa May to Jeremy Corbyn’s attack on the question of police numbers. It was at this point however that things went most disastrously wrong.
Those who think me partial about this might care to consider the account of her response given by a journalist for the Daily Telegraph, Britain’s most staunchly Conservative newspaper
A strong leader, of course, has no fear of tackling tough questions head-on. Six times journalists asked her about the cuts made to police numbers while she was Home Secretary; each time, she skipped lightly away from the subject, saying that budgets had been “protected since 2015” (she started as Home Secretary in 2010).
Not only did she fail in her response to the questions about police numbers. She also failed dismally when questioned about US President Trump’s attacks on London mayor Sadiq Khan
Four times journalists asked her whether she’d take Donald Trump to task for wildly misrepresenting Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, in the aftermath of the London Bridge attack. The first three times, she said simply that Mr Khan was “doing a good job”, but didn’t criticise Trump. The fourth time, she still didn’t criticise Trump, but said it would be “wrong” to say Mr Khan was doing a bad job. That, it seemed, was as far as she dared to go.
On the subject of President Trump’s criticisms of Sadiq Khan, Theresa May had a clear choice: back Trump or Sadiq Khan. In the middle of a general election, with Sadiq Khan a popular mayor of London, a city where the opinion polls show the Conservatives struggling, and with the British electorate hostile to Donald Trump, that ought to have been a no-brainer.
After all it is not as if Trump himself held back whilst a candidate from making criticisms of others, and there would have been plenty of time to patch things up with Trump once the election was out of the way. Instead Theresa May once again dithered, and came out looking as if Trump has her in his pocket.
If contrary to most expectations Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party win the general election on Thursday it will not be because the British electorate were panicked by ISIS into voting for them.
It will because of something the London terror attack has once more exposed: Theresa May is simply not up to the job of being Prime Minister of Britain.