With world leaders touching down in the UK this week for the NATO summit, it had been the Conservative’s plan to pivot to national security in the fourth week of the General Election campaign. However, Friday’s tragic terrorist attack at London Bridge has pushed the issue front and centre for both of the main parties, as Conservatives and Labour have sought to gain the front foot on crime and punishment.
Despite the father of Jack Merritt, one of the victims of the attack, imploring political leaders that his son would not ‘wish his death to be used as the pretext for more draconian sentences or for detaining people unnecessarily’, Boris Johnson responded to the attack with tough on crime promises. Law and order has been a central focus of his programme since becoming Prime Minister, and following the attack Johnson announced plans for tougher sentencing for terrorists and is expected to outline a five-point plan to prevent serious criminals and terrorists from entering the country post-Brexit.
Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, was quick to point to the impact of austerity and British foreign policy on the justice system. He also called for a greater focus on rehabilitation in prison, saying that it isn’t always in the public interest for prisoners to serve their full sentences. It is this issue in particular that has proven a pinch point, as the Tories and Labour seek to blame each other for perpetrator Usman Khan having been able to gain early release from prison. The Tories blame Labour legislation that meant offenders serving extended sentences were no longer reviewed by the Parole Board but automatically released halfway through their term, but Labour are pointing to the Conservative abolition of the type of indeterminate sentence originally given to Khan. Cue an unbecoming and unpleasant blame game being fought out in the media.
The Liberal Democrat’s Chuka Umunna has perhaps made the most prescient interjection on the politics of the attack, stating that ‘The assailant, the person who committed the acts here, was jailed under a regime inherited by the Coalition Government from a Labour Government and then he was released early under a Conservative Government. So, this happened under Governments of different political persuasions.’
But what will this mean in electoral terms? In a poll conducted last month, only 9 percent of the public cited security as a key issue, down from 41 per cent in a 2017 poll taken in the wake of the terrorist attacks during that year’s election campaign. The Government is often the first place people look to for an explanation and reassurance in such circumstances but only the coming days will tell of the impact that such a tragic event, for which both Labour and Conservative policies bear some responsibility, will have at the polls.