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Has Theresa May really “paused campaigning“? Her terror speech suggests not

The Prime Minister's statement went beyond reassurance, and outlined a series of anti-terror measures which could be obtained by voting Conservative.

By Stephen Bush

Has political campaigning been suspended, or not? Officially, the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens have all announced an end to the day’s electioneering, although local parties will continue to canvass.

But is it possible to give an apolitical reaction to terrorism? Theresa May has just delivered a speech outside Downing Street which sounded an awful lot like campaigning.

The first half of the speech, which detailed the circumstances of the attack and the death toll, and reassured the public, rose above party politics:

“We are all shocked and horrified by the brutal attacks in London. My thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of those who have died and the many who have been injured. Today, we will all grieve for their loss.

Shortly before 10 past 10 yesterday evening, the Metropolitan Police received reports that a white van had stuck pedestrians on London Bridge.

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It continued to drive from London bridge to Borough Market where three terrorists left the van and attacked innocent and unarmed civilians with blades and knives.

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All three were wearing what appeared to be explosive vests but the police have established that this clothing was fake, and worn only to spread panic and fear.

As so often in such serious situations, the police responded with great courage and great speed. Armed officers from the Metropolitan police and the City of London Police arrived at Borough Market within moments and shot and killed the three suspects. I would like to thank the police and emergency services for their bravery and professionalism in acting to save lives and deal with these appalling acts of terrorism.

Seven people have died as a result of the attack, in addition to the three suspects shot dead by the police. Forty-eight people are being treated in several hospitals across London. Many have life-threatening injuries.

We are all shocked and horrified by the brutal attacks in London. My thoughts are with the families and friends of those who have died and the many who have been injured. Today, we will all grieve for their loss.

Those who wish to harm our people, divide our communities and attack our democracy will not succeed. We will stand together to defend our common values of solidarity, humanity and justice, and will not allow terrorists to derail our democratic process.”

This is firmly apolitical. So much so that I was able to substitute several paragraphs of Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron’s statements on the attacks without having to disrupt the flow or change the argument in any way. This is very much what the Prime Minister ought to be doing in the aftermath of a terrorist attack – offering the facts, reassuring the country.

The second half of the speech, however, was very different in tone. The prime minister moved from the realm of non-partisan opinion and warm platitudes to a political argument, going so far as to outline a series of policy measures in response to the attacks. The big items: further regulation of the Internet, more powers for the security services, a continuation of our military efforts to defeat and destroy the self-described Islamic State and a clampdown on supports of jihadism in the United Kingdom.

Now, these aren’t suggestions which I could insert into the Labour party – or Green, or Liberal Democrat – manifesto without you noticing I’d done it. In moving away from the circumstances of the attack and towards what our response should be, May is effectively campaigning. She is offering a series of measures which can only be brought forward after 8 June if enough people vote for the Conservatives. 

Perhaps that is fine: it’s perfectly fair and right that we should have an argument about how to response to the London Bridge attacks. But it feels less fair for the governing party to agree to a pause in campaigning and use that pause to advance ideas, while implicitly inhibiting criticism or alternatives from the opposition parties.