On 20 May 2015, as Police Federation members warned Theresa May of the effects of cuts, the future PM defiantly told the body to stop “scaremongering” and “crying wolf”. After the UK’s third terrorist attack in three months, May’s words are under greater scrutiny than ever before.
Though security is traditionally a strong suit for the Conservatives, May’s Home Office record presents uncomfortable truths. In a speech last night, Jeremy Corbyn declared: “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'” (He went further today and called on the PM to resign over her record.)
The Labour leader is not the only one to have warned May of the consequences of cuts. Following the London Bridge attack, Sadiq Khan told CNN: “It’s not sustainable to carry on reducing the resources that our police receive.” Peter Kirkham, a former Met chief inspector, warned that the service was in “crisis” and accused May of being “criminally negligent with the safety of the public”. After a painfully awkward interview on Good Morning Britain, Culture Secretary Karen Bradley later conceded on the Today programme that there had been “reductions in police numbers across the board”.
Between September 2010 and September 2016, police workforce numbers in England and Wales fell by 18,991. The number of authorised firearms officers has fallen from 6,976 in March 2010 to 5,639 in March 2016. When pressed on these figures at a press conference this morning, May replied: “We have protected counter-terrorism policing budgets. We have also provided funding for an increase in the number of armed police officers. Since 2015 we have protected overall police budgets [a fact disputed by the UK Statistics Authority]”.
Though the counter-terrorism budget has consistently risen, police and politicians warn that other cuts have hindered security. As Chuka Umunna, a former member of the home affairs select commiteee, recently told me: “There’s no getting away from it: we need more police on our streets. All the evidence that I’ve heard from the Met commissioner down is that, actually, the most important resource for gathering intelligence are your local policemen and women. Twenty thousand have been cut since 2010 and if you don’t have the numbers to gather intelligence then it makes it so much harder.”
Unlike Labour’s manifesto, which promises 10,000 more police officers, the Conservatives’ manifesto does not mention police numbers or funding. Though May has abandoned George Osborne’s budget surplus target (promising only to eliminate the deficit by 2025), spending cuts have not ceased. The Conservatives hope that Jeremy Corbyn’s record of voting against all major counter-terrorist legislation and of opposing “shoot-to-kill” (a stance he has since reversed) will hinder Labour. But three days before the election, two Tory priorities – austerity and security – are in dangerous collision.