Analysis

Will the Manchester Bombing Affect the British Election?

While Prime Minister Theresa May still seems poised to win, she could face tough questions on her handling of Islamic extremism as home secretary

The family of one of the victims in the Manchester bombing pay tribute at St. Ann's Square in Manchester, England, May 25, 2017.
Rui Vieira/AP

The detonation of a suicide bomb in central Manchester at 10:30 P.M. on Monday killed 22 people. It also brought to a dramatic end the surprising crisis that had engulfed the British Conservative Party’s election campaign. Prime Minister Theresa May, who just a month ago had confidently called a snap election for June 8, suddenly faced a rapid decline in the party’s majority in opinion polls. She had been forced to make a humiliatingly public retraction of a central part of the platform, released only a few days before.

While at the start of the campaign, the Conservatives led their main rival, the Labour Party, by around 20 percent, that margin had narrowed to the single digits. After the explosion rocked Manchester Arena all the parties suspended their campaigns, and the media turned to focus on the victims, on the soldiers spreading out on the streets of London and on the armed police officers raiding the homes suspects. This weekend the parties will return to politics, almost as usual, and to a campaign that is newly painted in unclear colors.

Until the beginning of this week, the discussion among politicians and journalists in London revolved around one question: How devastating will Labour’s downfall be? Could the party lose over 100 seats in Parliament, and could its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, survive such a wipeout? The Tories were predicted an overwhelming victory not only in their share of the national vote, but also in more focused local polls showing entire areas of the United Kingdom, in Wales and in northern England, switching over after having been Labour strongholds for decades. The Conservative campaign message was stark and simple. Vote for May’s “strong and stable leadership” and don’t allow Corbyn’s “coalition of chaos” anywhere near the levers of power.

But the gap began narrowing even before the Conservatives’ strategic manifesto error, when they announced that the next government would make pensioners use their own assets, particularly by mortgaging their homes, to finance their social care. Few steps could have been calculated to give the key constituency of older voters from the middle and working classes more reason to doubt the Tories. By the time they realized how damaging their mistake had been, they were forced to say that the new steps would only be taken after “consultation” and that there would be a “cap” on the amounts pensioners would have to pay. In a harrowing interview to the BBC, May was accused of leading the first party in history to have “actually broken a manifesto policy before the election.”

Labour, which earlier polls gave less than 30 percent of votes, gained five percentage points in a week, even before the manifesto shambles. The reasons are varied. A main one seems to be that while voters don’t believe there is even the slightest chance of Corbyn entering Downing Street on June 9, they still want May to contend with a strong opposition. The weakness of the “alternatives” to Labour, the Liberal Democrat and the Green parties, which have so far failed to articulate a coherent message, is another contributing factor. Other reasons are a voter-friendly manifesto launched by Labour with pleasing elements such as the abolition of university tuition fees and free school meals for all children. Even though it wasn’t clear from Labour’s manifesto how exactly it plans to finance its plans, which include major renationalization of corporations, they are still more appealing to many than the Conservatives’ harsher measures. And while, at least according to polls, a large majority of British voters seem not to want the veteran radical-left activist Corbyn as their prime minister, his pleasant demeanor on the campaign trail and obvious enjoyment of engaging with the public has contrasted sharply with the reserved and suspicious May. She is noticeably awkward in public and finds it very difficult to just chat with voters.

Despite the narrowing gap, the average of polling still indicates a sure victory for the Conservatives, but the trend, at least before the Manchester bombing, is in Corbyn’s favor and could return May to a parliament without the massive majority she expected and a restive Conservative Party, increasingly uncertain of her leadership. For the last three days, that has all been on hold. May is back in her favorite position, the confident and experienced leader, updating the public in terse unsmiling statements on the ongoing investigation and the new security measures in place, including raising the national threat level to the highest possible. This was Britain’s worst terror attack since the bombings on London’s public transport network in July 2005 and for now at least, the politicians on all sides are careful not to say anything that could harm public unity. No one wants to be seen as taking advantage of slain terror victims. On the fringes of the Labour Party, however, there are already grumbling among Corbyn supporters on Twitter and Facebook on how the attack was very convenient for the Conservatives in stemming their momentum and even dark hints of conspiracy theories.

Will May’s confident handling of the emergency boost the Conservatives’ margin again and deliver a landslide in 13 days? Many believe that will be the case, especially as the terror issue is Corbyn’s weak spot. He is still remembered for having supported the cause of the Irish Republican Army terrorists, calling Hamas and Hezbollah “our friends” and blaming Western policy in the Middle East for jihadi attacks. But the Conservatives shouldn’t count on this being the case. Particularly in light of the fact that for six years May was the home secretary, in charge of Britain’s police and security forces, and could herself be asked some very difficult questions about why potential terror suspects such as the presumed Manchester suicide bomber Salman Abedi were not detected and arrested. And why she slashed so many thousands of police-officer positions that soldiers have been deployed to enhance security in London and other cities.

Also, the fact that Abedi’s family is from Libya and that he visited there very recently could focus attention on the fact that Islamic State has exploited the chaos that has reigned in Libya since the fall of Muammar Gadhafi to establish strongholds there. It was the previous Conservative government that pushed for Western intervention in support of the rebels in Libya six years ago. Corbyn’s was one of the lone voices of strenuous objection. His supporters are already using that claim on social media.

The two candidates have diametrically opposite approaches to fighting terror, and an election campaign would be the natural place to debate these policies and allow the public to decide. But British politics is still much more polite and reserved than in any other country in the world; certain subjects can be ruled taboo in an election, by the tacit agreement of both sides. That was the case a year ago, when a week before the referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a white supremacist who objected to her views on immigration. Despite Cox having been an indefatigable supporter of Britain’s remaining in the EU, there was a silent agreement between the Remain and Brexit camps that her death would not be brought up in their campaigning. It won’t be a major surprise if this time again, May and Corbyn, both of whom could stand to lose, jointly reach a decision not to allow the Manchester terror attack to become part of the election campaign.