Prime minister targets Labour over national security in row over role of foreign policy in fostering terror as polls show Tory lead is declining
Theresa May has launched an extraordinary attack on Jeremy Corbyn, accusing him of saying Britain is to blame for the Manchester Arena bombing in a war of words that places the atrocity at the heart of the election campaign.
The prime minister used a press conference at the end of her first G7 summit to resume her election campaign by directly targeting the Labour leader after he had said the war on terror was not working.
“I have been here with the G7, working with other international leaders to fight terrorism,” May told reporters. “At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault and he has chosen to do that a few days after one of the worst terrorist atrocities we have experienced in the United Kingdom.
“I want to make something clear to Jeremy Corbyn and to you: there can never be an excuse for terrorism, there can be no excuse for what happened in Manchester.”
The comments triggered an immediate response from Labour. A Corbyn spokesman accusing the prime minister of “not telling the truth” in her interpretation of Corbyn’s remarks, made earlier in the day at an address in Westminster.
“In his speech, Jeremy said protecting this country requires us to be both strong against terrorism and strong against the causes of terrorism,” the spokesman said. “The blame is with the terrorists, but if we are to protect our people we must be honest about what threatens our security.”
Corbyn added that he had been making a point that UK interventions have created “huge ungoverned spaces” in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, when he was pressed by Andrew Neil in a BBC1 interview about whether the Manchester attack was the result of UK foreign policy.
“The attack on Manchester was shocking, appalling, indefensible, wrong in every possible way,” the Labour leader said. “The parallel I was drawing this morning was that a number of people ever since the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have drawn attention to the links with foreign policy, including Boris Johnson in 2005, two former heads of MI5, and of course the foreign affairs select committee.”
But May said Corbyn’s speech had made the choice starker for voters on 8 June. “It is a choice between me working constantly to protect the national interest and to protect our security, and Jeremy Corbyn, who frankly isn’t up to the job,” she said.
She made clear that she would attack Corbyn on national security – and said the decision for voters was who they wanted to be sitting down to Brexit talks 11 days after the general election.
Her intervention capped a day of personal attacks by the Tories on Corbyn, after Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, and Sir Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, also singled out the Labour leader. Johnson said it was “absolutely extraordinary and inexplicable in this week of all weeks that there should be any attempt to justify or to legitimate the actions of terrorists in this way”.
May’s decision to hit out at Corbyn came as an opinion poll showed Labour making up ground against the Conservatives, a point that was put to the prime minister. A YouGov poll had put Labour on 38% – up three points – and only five behind the Tories.
The prime minister said she planned to be out across the country to set out the choice to voters and stressed that the loss of just six seats would end her majority.
Corbyn had said earlier that the sight of the army on Britain’s streets after the Manchester attack was a clear sign that the UK’s foreign policy and approach to fighting terrorism was not working. He said there must be more money for law enforcement as he suggested Britain’s intervention in wars abroad had fuelled the risk of terrorism at home.
“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 and terrorism here at home,” he said.
In the interview with Neil, Corbyn was repeatedly questioned over his past association with the IRA, though he denied he had ever supported the movement and distanced himself again from supportive comments made by key allies John McDonnell and Diane Abbott.
“I never met the IRA,” he said. “I obviously did meet people from Sinn Féin as indeed I met people from other organisations, and I always made the point that there had to be a dialogue and a peace process.”
Challenged by Neil with comments from a former IRA leader, Sean O’Callaghan, and a negotiator, Seamus Mallon, that Corbyn had only ever supported “victory for the IRA”, the Labour leader denied he had wanted a continuation of the violence. “People were killed by loyalist bombs as well. All deaths are appalling, all deaths are wrong. There isn’t a military solution to a conflict between traditions and communities. There has to be a better way and a better process of doing it.”
The newly elected Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, said he did not agree with Corbyn’s interpretation of the influence of foreign policy on terrorism. “I have a different view to Jeremy on this,” he told TalkRadio. “9/11 happened before any interventions overseas, and the ideology was in existence before that … The people who committed this appalling act are responsible for it, 100%.”
Burnham said radical Islamists had “used things” to justify violence. “We didn’t create it. [There’s] a tendency to blame governments for everything, and I don’t think we should.”
The prime minister also had a short, unscheduled meeting with Donald Trump, which was characterised as a “pull aside”. A Downing Street spokesperson said they had “reaffirmed their commitment to increasing trade between the UK and the US, including a post-Brexit trade deal”. They stressed the US president had pledged support for free trade, as well as those left behind by globalisation.
The spokesperson added: “The prime minister and president noted that there had been strong agreement in discussions so far that the G7 should do more collectively on counter-terrorism.”
Source: The Guardian