Theresa May has vowed “enough is enough” on Islamist terrorism as she signalled tougher counter-terrorism laws in the wake of the London Bridge attack.
Despite announcing a one-day suspension in campaigning for the general election, the Prime Minister set out a four-point political response to the incident that left seven dead and nearly 50 injured on Saturday night.
Speaking on the steps of No.10 Downing Street, May suggested for the first time that she would increase jail sentences even for “apparently less serious offices”
But she risked claims that she was trying to gain political advantage in the wake of the attack.
Former Chancellor Ed Balls said May’s statement ‘posed lots of questions...let’s not pretend everybody agrees’. Cuts of 20,000 police officers and watered-down anti-terror control orders under May were valid subjects for criticism, he said.
Shortly after 10pm on Saturday, three terrorists ploughed a white van into pedestrians on the bridge before stabbing pub-goers in central London. Armed police shot all three dead within minutes.
With polling day just four days away, the PM announced “the general election will go ahead on Thursday as planned”.
Yet even though the Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats had all agreed to suspend national election activity on Sunday, she went on to set out a tougher counter-terror policy.
”It is time to say enough is enough. Everybody needs to go about their lives as they normally would,” she said.
“Our society should continue to function in accordance with our values. But when it comes to taking on extremism and terrorism, things need to change.”
The PM said that Islamist terror could only be defeated by changing policy ‘in four important ways’:
* showing “British values..are superior to anything offered by the preachers and supporters of hate”.
* cracking down on online extremism to deny the “safe space” for potential violence, while taking military action in Iraq and Syria
* “stamping out” extremism “across the public sector and society” and an end to “segregated communities”
* a review of counter-terrorism strategy with longer jail sentences even for ‘apparently less serious offences’
May’s words are a break from her previous criticism of “knee jerk” responses to terror attacks.
She has been among those who criticised Tony Blair for his ‘12-point plan’, issued after the 7/7 terror attacks on London in 2005, as an over-reaction that included impractical measures.
Her statement is also a big shift since the Manchester terror atrocity, in the wake of which Home Secretary Amber Rudd insisted the police and intelligence chiefs were not requesting any new powers.
The PM said in her statement that five terror plots had been foiled since the Westminster attack in March and signalled a fresh approach was now needed - including longer prison terms.
“In light of what we are learning about the changing threat, we need to review Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy to make sure the police and security services have all the powers they need.
“And if we need to increase the length of custodial sentences for terrorism-related offences, even apparently less serious offences, that is what we will do.”
May added: “While we have made significant progress in recent years, there is - to be frank - far too much tolerance of extremism in our country.
“So we need to become far more robust in identifying it and stamping it out across the public sector and across society. That will require some difficult, and often embarrassing, conversations.
“But the whole of our country needs to come together to take on this extremism, and we need to live our lives not in a series of separated, segregated communities, but as one truly United Kingdom.”
The Tory manifesto includes plans to establish a new “Commission for Countering Extremism”, but it had few specifics.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd told ITV’s Peston programme that May’s reference to military action did not mean there would be fresh intervention in Syria and Iraq, where so-called Islamic State are based.
Rudd did say that much more had to be done to tackle internet-based extremism, and called for online giants to do more to allow security forces to access encrypted messages such as on WhatsApp.
However, concern was raised that the PM’s strong intervention was itself a very political statement.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry said that this was not the time to make political points and refused to set out Labour’s criticisms of the Tories’ record on security.
But Balls pointed out that there needed to be debate about why the terrorist plots were ‘succeeding’ in recent months - and about the way May had replaced Labour’s control orders [stringent restrictions on suspects’ movements] with weaker measures.
“Is there an issue about police resources? Is there an issue about control orders?” he asked on ITV’s Peston on Sunday.
The former Labour Cabinet minister added that there needed to be a review of the controversial ‘Prevent’ anti-extremism strategy, which some critics say has been heavy-handed and counter-productive.
Former Tory chairwoman Sayeeda Warsi also raised concerns about the Government’s record: “We need to look at the control orders TPIM programme.
“We need to look at these programmes again. We need to look again at how to do our counterterrorism. It’s time for a genuine review of that [Prevent] programme, making it fit for purpose. We need to go back to evidence-based policy.”