The five things you need to know on Thursday, May 25…
1) SILENCE PLEASE
There will be a minute’s silence at 11am in memory of the 22 children and adults killed in the Manchester bombing. And this morning Theresa May and our security services are hoping for a little more silence from the Americans who have so far leaked key details of the investigation into the terrorist attack.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd yesterday said she was “irritated” by the US leaks of the suicide bomber’s name, number killed and other details. But irritation turned to genuine anger in Whitehall after the New York Times was passed photos of the crime scene revealing Salman Abedi’s rucksack and his detonator device.
The FBI, rather than the White House, is suspected to be the source of the information. And Theresa May has made it a central tenet of her relationship with Donald Trump to be supportive in public and frank in private. Yet having backed Trump’s move to get Nato to join the anti-Daesh alliance, she is expected to raise with the President the damage being done by the leaks.
Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon didn’t deny on LBC Radio that he was ‘bloody furious’, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham told Newsnight he had raised the issue with the US embassy, saying it is “quite frankly disgusting”. The US State Department tells us the President is giving his ‘full support’ to the UK. The big news this morning is that Greater Manchester Police have decided to stop sharing information with the US. That is a major, unprecedented decision.
Last night the National Police Chiefs’ Council warned that the publication of the photos “undermines” relations between UK and US authorities, the ongoing investigation and, crucially, “the confidence of victims, witnesses and their families”.
And it is the families we who will be in our thoughts this morning as those flags fly at half-mast around the country. Charlotte Campbell, whose 15-year-old daughter Olivia was murdered on Monday night, attended a vigil in her home town of Bury. “I had to come, I didn't know what to do, I don't know where to be, I don't know what to do,” She was applauded as she spoke, then added this: “As a family, we're united, we're standing strong. I ask her friends, strangers, relatives to do the same. Please stay together, don't let this beat any of us, please. Don't let my daughter be a victim."
2) QUESTION TIME
Of course, there are uncomfortable questions for our own security services and ministers about claims that Abedi was known to the authorities and had been the subject of repeated warnings. The Telegraph talks of ‘five missed chances’ to tackle him earlier, the Times leads on a relative of Abedi’s warning this year that he was “dangerous”. It seems an anti-terror hotline was alerted about him five years ago, after the young Mancunian had said suicide bombing was ‘OK’.
With growing evidence that Abedi was part of a ‘network’, there have been more arrests overnight and eight people are now in custody as part of what’s turning into a “vast” investigation. Our security services have foiled numerous terror plots in recent years, but as the IRA said after the Brighton bomb in 1984: “we only have to be lucky once – you will have to be lucky always.” Any intelligence failures will be keenly felt not just in MI5 and MI6 but in No.10 too.
The whole debate about the ‘Prevent’ strategy for rooting out extremism has reignited. Yet what’s most worrying is the activity of the Libyan dissident groups in south Manchester. And in a further clue to what a mess Libya is in, Abedi’s father and brother were arrested in Tripoli yesterday not by police but by a militia linked to the UN-backed government. With claims that jihadis regularly travel to and from Libya to Syria, the swoop by masked gunmen was another reminder that terror feeds off chaos right across the Middle East.
3) THINNER BLUE LINE
From midday, the Tories will resume some low-key general election activity at local level. Labour has already been leafleting but it too will start a “phased” return to campaigning, and both parties will be back to national politics from tomorrow. Jeremy Corbyn informed the PM of his plans yesterday, and issued a statement that the Manchester attack will “not prevent us going about our daily lives or derail our democratic process”.
Yesterday, those of us working in Westminster saw first-hand the reality of the PM’s decision to deploy the troops in the wake of the bombing. For the first time since the Second World War, the military took on roles guarding Parliament. The whole exercise was highly symbolic and the presence of a MoD camera crew, and staged photo-ops with Met chief Cressida Dick suggested this was indeed all about the signals being sent out. Unusually, soldiers from different regiments (Paras and Guardsmen) were mixed into one troop, another possible sign that this was about ‘optics’.
Yet while the presence of the military was all about freeing up armed police to do other more urgent work than guarding major buildings, the suspension of the election campaign didn’t prevent criticism of wider policy. Steve White, the chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, welcomed the extra support but pointed out that it laid bare just how few resources the police now had after years of cuts.
White said: “There is no ignoring the fact that we, the police, simply do not have the resources to manage an event like this on our own” Another front-line officer posted on Facebook that he was “saddened” that the Army were needed at all. Analysts, general inquiry officers and police station managers were vital when a member of the public saw something suspicious and just wanted to alert the cops, he said.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Listen to US Republican candidate Greg Gianforte ‘body slam’ a Guardian reporter for asking a question. He's since been charged for assault.
4) CONSPIRACY CORNER
Of course, there’s a world of difference in objecting to police cuts and any attempt to suggest that the Manchester bombings themselves were part of some grand conspiracy to help Theresa May get out of a tricky election campaign.
But that hasn’t stopped several tinfoil hatters (so-called because of the belief that wearing a tinfoil hat prevents Government mind control) from suggesting the whole terror atrocity was part of The Establishment’s attempt to stop Jeremy Corbyn from getting into No.10. Such claims seem self-evidently crass, deluded and insensitive to the Manchester families, yet Twitter was alight last night as comedian Rufus Hound told his 1.2 million followers he was thinking what some were thinking.
One tweeter had said: “Given the attacker was known to MI5, the timing seems fortunate that an attack ‘slips through’ as Labour are making progress.” Hound replied: “Apologies for mild tinhattedness, but I've been thinking the same. Esp. as she was Home Secretary for so long. #reichstagFire”. Yes, he even included a Nazi reference. He’s since apologised but not deleted.
Debbie Hicks, vice chair of Stroud Labour Party, suggested that the bombing was “wonderful timing” for May. Labour HQ has distanced itself from such comments, but in the Telegraph former Labour MP Tom Harris says it underlines the hard Left’s view that “Corbyn’s inevitable defeat, when it comes, cannot possibly be the fault either of their leader or those who elected him to that job”.
5) THE NEW NORMAL
‘Normal’ politics resumes first today with UKIP launching its delayed manifesto. The party looks like it is set to play the only card it has left as it faces post-Brexit wipeout: inflammatory talk about immigration and integration.
Of course, no one should tell anyone else how they ‘ought’ to feel in the wake of the Manchester bombings and there are some genuine concerns about the way extremists have been allowed to prosper in some communities. And don’t forget that in the North West, the UKIP message on ‘political correctness’ has struck a chord in recent years. Shutting down UKIP is not the answer, countering their arguments is. They also suffer from chronic in-fighting, as proved by UKIP Rotherham candidate Allen Cowles telling BBC Radio 4 that Paul Nuttall had a ‘car crash’ by-election campaign. A former Treasurer adds that Nuttall “just comes across like an idiot”.
What’s also the new ‘normal’, however, is the Tories getting their sums wrong on their election manifesto. The BBC follows up Education Week’s report that the party’s free breakfasts policy (which could prove popular) started at £60m but could cost £200m or even £400m. Add in that former Gove adviser Sam Freedman talking about teachers handing out food to pupils whose families have been hit by benefit cuts, and you can see there’s a lot of ‘real’ politics we need to get back to.
Note too the FT’s story of growing City disquiet at the Tories. At the paper’s City Network event, the CBI, IoD and others attacked the Conservative manifesto as protectionist, harmful on immigration, and anti-business. We have exactly two weeks left to debate and discuss all this.
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