Security is supposed to be Theresa May’s strong point. Today, it looked like her Achilles heel. The Prime Minister used a speech this morning to pit herself against Jeremy Corbyn as the one to trust on Brexit and keeping Britain safe. At the same venue as her leadership launch last year, May painted a familiar image of herself as a politician who doesn’t ‘gossip’ and gets on with the job as she accused Corbyn of an ‘abdication of leadership’. But in the Q and A afterwards, it wasn’t the Labour leader’s record which was up for discussion. Instead, it was May’s time as Home Secretary which came under close scrutiny.
The Prime Minister was repeatedly forced onto the defensive as she was quizzed on cuts to police numbers at least six times. The figure which popped up several times was the 20,000 reduction in officers since 2010. On this, May has little room for manoeuvre. Since that year, when May became Home Secretary, police numbers have indeed tumbled by around 19,000 – or 13 per cent in total. The Prime Minister’s answer was textbook May – changing the subject to her list of achievements instead of dwelling on some uncomfortable truths. Here’s what she said on police numbers:
‘It is absolutely right I have set out in my speech today that we do need to take a much more robust approach to tackling extremism in this country . Overall, we have made progress on this. I introduced a counter-extremism strategy when I was Home Secretary but I think overall we have seen too much tolerance of extremism in our society, so we do need to deal with it. Thats why, in our manifesto, we’ve set out a step that I think we will be the first in the world to take – introducing the commission on counter-extremism…’
May was then asked again about police numbers. She responded by saying that she had already answered the question. If so, that was news to many of the journalists in the room. Instead, once again, she pointed to her record of protecting funding for counter-terrorism policing and said that, since 2015, police budgets had been protected. But this does little to deflect from the simple fact that the number of officers on Britain’s streets have declined on her watch.
Of course, there’s no direct evidence that falling police numbers have increased the terror threat or that more police could have prevented any of the recent atrocities. But as May pointed out herself during today’s speech ‘nothing is more important than keeping our country safe’. In light of that, it should come as no surprise to the PM that some are now asking questions about whether cutting police numbers really was a sensible move.