David Cameron faced a fresh backlash over his attack on Labour’s Sadiq Khan after he declared that the Tories were the best party to fight “extremists” that want to “divide our country”.
In his most outspoken intervention yet in the London Mayoral race, the Prime Minister used a rally alongside Zac Goldsmith to declare that residents would become “lab rats” in a Jeremy Corbyn “experiment” if Khan was elected this May.
But in the same speech he had also referred to the need for vigilance against terrorism in the wake of the Paris attacks, declaring the capital needed a Mayor who would be “tough on Islamist extremists that want to divide our country”.
“I know working with Zac I’ll be able to do just that,” Cameron added.
Supporters of Khan claimed that the Prime Minister’s remarks, with their implication that Labour would be weak on security, sounded like “another dog whistle” to voters on the issues of terrorism and Islam.
A Labour source told HuffPost UK: “It’s obvious what Cameron was trying to do there. Londoners will see straight through it.”
The clash follows spats between Goldsmith and Khan over claims that he is a “radical” and divisive figure.
Speaking at the rally in Mill Hill, north London, Cameron told an audience of Tory supporters [see video above] why security was at the heart of the Mayoral election.
“We have to recognise the scale of the terrorist threat we face in London. What happened in Paris, that could have happened here and I will do everything I can as your Prime Minister to help keep London and Londoners safe,” he said.
“And I know working with Zac I’ll be able to do just that: a mayor and a Prime Minister who know we have got to be tough on the Islamist extremists that want to divide our country.
“We know we have got to be tough in terms of providing the extra policemen on our streets.
“And we know we’ve got to be tough in making sure there are sufficient armed policemen on London’s streets so they can respond if they need to in the result of there is an incident. And that will always be the case when I’m your Prime Minister and he’s your Mayor.”
“So you’ve got the man, you’ve got the plan, now just think for a moment about the alternative. We’ve got one man with a record of delivery - and we’ve got another man with a record…”
The Prime Minister then went on to ridicule Khan for nominating Corbyn and listed the Labour’ leader’s recent remarks about holding discussions on the Falklands and bringing back ‘flying pickets’ for secondary strike action.
Khan tweeted today that the use of the word ‘rats’ was inappropriate, but No.10 countered that his response was ‘hysterical’.
I’m shocked the PM described Londoners as ‘rats’. I love this city and the people who live here. Desperate stuff from a desperate campaign.
— Sadiq Khan MP (@SadiqKhan) January 27, 2016
Some in Labour fear that the Conservatives will go all-out to attack the party on terrorism and security in coming weeks, especially as recent polls show Khan has a clear lead over his rival and as some Tory MPs complain about their candidate’s lack of political street-fighting ability.
The battle for the mayoralty has become increasingly bitter, with a Goldsmith leaflet accusing Khan of being a “radical” who wants to divide Londoners, and even attacking him for his record on ‘chicken shops’.
One aide to Khan said the word "radical" to describe a Muslim against the backdrop of a climate of terrorism was "divisive dog-whistling”.
Labour has hit back with a leaflet describing Goldsmith as a “serial underachiever”, an Etonian millionaire who inherited his wealth.
The leaflet quoted Tory donor and businessman Sir Nigel Rudd claiming Goldsmith “was left money by his daddy, he’s never had a job other than a job given to him by his uncle, so what qualification has he got to do anything?"
The Tories today unveiled a new poster describing Khan as ‘Corbyn’s man’.
— Simon Harris (@simonharrisitv) January 26, 2016
A senior Tory source told HuffPost UK: “The point the PM is making is that he doesn’t want hardworking Londoners subjected to a trial run of the extreme, radical policies of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party which are a threat to our national security, our economic security and the security of every family in the country.
“Sadiq Khan’s claims are a desperate bid to distract attention from his support for Labour’s extreme policies - even though he personally nominated Corbyn for the leadership.”
Allies of Khan insist that he has publicly disagreed with his party leader on a string of issues such as Trident, Heathrow and business.