Yesterday’s appalling Islamist attack in Westminster was not just an attack on Parliament. It began on Westminster bridge, where foreign tourists and members of the public were indiscriminately targeted as they made their way over the Thames. But the attack ended at the Palace of Westminster itself, when the assailant was shot dead by police in New Palace Yard, after he had stabbed to death an unarmed police officer.
Parliament’s defences are designed to resist this kind of attack, even if there is a gate that is necessarily open at times for MPs’ cars. But as Theresa May told the House of Commons this morning, ‘the whole country will want to know… the measures that we are taking to strengthen our security, including here in Westminster’. Are there lessons to be learnt?
Quite possibly yes, if a significant but unconfirmed BBC story is true. Laura Kuenssberg suggests that it was one of the Defence Secretary’s armed police bodyguards who shot dead the attacker, not the police who ordinarily guard the parliamentary estate.
The Metropolitan Police are not confirming it. But, if the report is accurate, would Sir Michael Fallon’s security detail have been present were it not for the vote that was going on at the time? Where were the armed police officers that, I understand, are usually stationed behind the unarmed officers, with the necessary equipment to deal with serious threats? It’s worth considering that the first noise some witnesses heard was the attacker’s car hitting the railings off Bridge Street, round the corner from Parliament Square. Had they gone to investigate?
We will find out more in the next hours and days. And further questions will be asked. Speaking in the Commons, Theresa Villiers has already raised the issue of whether all police at Parliament should carry weapons.
If the BBC is right, it hardly bears thinking about what might have happened if the Defence Secretary’s security detail had not been present. Perhaps the attacker would have been killed by another armed policeman nearby; perhaps he might have got further into the parliamentary estate. All this will need investigating, whether or not the authorities are prepared to share their findings with the public.
Update: This paragraph, from Sam Coates’s report in the Times, is significant too:
In the three minutes after the shots were fired, small teams tried to assist both men. All this time the two ten-foot high wrought iron gates, which have protected the parliamentary estate for decades, were left open and unguarded. At one point a courier drove through the entrance that had just been used by the attacker, apparently hoping to drop off a parcel. Pedestrians continued to walk past the entrance, oblivious.
The individual bravery of the police officers in response to this attack looks even more extraordinary when you consider the risks they were exposed to.