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2 December 2019

Why the London Bridge attack is a challenge for Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson

By Stephen Bush

Jeremy Corbyn delivered a speech on two subjects that have a ready audience among a British public that is still deeply sceptical of military intervention following the Iraq war. He said that British foreign policy has exacerbated the terror threat, and that British foreign policy needs to free itself from its close alignment with the United States.

Whatever you may think of those positions, they are opinions with a large constituency in the country as a whole. The same can’t be said for the other thing that Corbyn called for: a greater focus on rehabilitation in prison, saying that it isn’t necessarily in the public interest for prisoners to serve their full sentences.

It’s that latter topic that has formed the bulk of Boris Johnson’s response to the attack. He’s criticised the last Labour government for the sentencing regime that allowed the attacker to walk free after eight years despite having been found to be planning the establishment of jihadi training camps in Kashmir and plotting to blow up the London Stock Exchange. Conservatives think that while Corbyn’s scepticism about American foreign policy and British involvement overseas is popular, the intellectual underpinnings of it are not, and the Labour leader’s general support for rehabilitation over punishment presents them with an opportunity.

The attacker, evidently, had not been rehabilitated. But one of the civilians who risked their life to overpower the assailant is a convicted murderer – the story about rehabilitation here is more complicated than the easy narrative would allow.

But whatever you may think of that narrative, it, too, is a school of thought with a large constituency in the country as a whole. The trouble for Johnson is that voters don’t wholly trust his motives. That his big intervention on sentencing has turned into a row about the facts surrounding sentencing in the United Kingdom risks moving an area of strength – Johnson’s willingness to echo the average British voter’s draconian positions on crime and punishment – into an area of weakness – the average British voter’s general sense that Johnson is willing to say anything to get their votes. 

Inevitably, that a second successive election has been marred by a terrorist attack means that the political focus will move, however briefly, to debates about foreign policy and rehabilitation: the difficulty for both leaders is that voters are more inclined to buy what they’re selling until you tell them who’s selling it.

[See also: Will Jeremy Corbyn agree to step aside in Islington North?]

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