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UK goes to the polls on June 8

Theresa May: Change human rights laws that would impede anti-terror legislation

In bid to regain control over security agenda in wake of terror attacks, British PM says it should be easier to restrict freedom, movement of terror suspects

British Prime Minister Theresa May, right, is accompanied by Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (2R) as she addresses supporters at a campaign event in Slough in south-east England on June 6, 2017. (AFP/Ben STANSALL)
British Prime Minister Theresa May, right, is accompanied by Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (2R) as she addresses supporters at a campaign event in Slough in south-east England on June 6, 2017. (AFP/Ben STANSALL)

British Prime Minister Theresa May said Tuesday she would be prepared to change human rights laws to accommodate anti-terror legislation that would make it easier for authorities to detain, punish and deport terror suspects.

Her remarks came in the wake of a deadly terror attack in London on Saturday that claimed seven lives, and just two days ahead of national elections where the security agenda has featured prominently following a string of attacks in the British capital and in Manchester.

“I mean longer prison sentences for people convicted of terrorist offences. I mean making it easier for the authorities to deport foreign terror suspects to their own countries,” she said, according to The Guardian on Tuesday, amid questions over cuts in funding to police in recent years and intelligence failures in the recent attacks.

“And I mean doing more to restrict the freedom and the movements of terrorist suspects when we have enough evidence to know they present a threat, but not enough evidence to prosecute them in full in court,” she said.

“And if human rights laws stop us from doing it, we will change those laws so we can do it,” she added.

The comments came as voters demand answers on why authorities failed to apprehend suspects whose extremist leanings were well-known. The three suspects in the London Bridge attack on Saturday were known to authorities — one was even on a recent TV documentary on British jihadists — as was the suicide bomber who killed 22 in Manchester late last month.

The attacks have raised awkward questions about May’s own record in government. Opponents have lambasted her for cutting police numbers by 20,000 when she was interior minister between 2010 and 2016. She also was responsible for security services that failed to keep tabs on Khuram Butt, a subject on “The Jihadis Next Door” which aired last year.

The proposed new anti-terror measures could involve stricter curfews, restrictions on movement, freedom and association with other known extremists, controls on travel and limits on access to communication devices.

Another measure could see the length of time for the detention of a suspect without trial increased. It is currently 14 days in Britain.

Channeling Margaret Thatcher

May is often compared to Margaret Thatcher, depicted by supporters as a 21st-century Iron Lady, but a bruising election campaign has dented her steely reputation.

Britain’s 60-year-old prime minister called a snap election — three years early — for this Thursday in a bid to increase her party’s slim majority in Parliament and strengthen her hand in divorce negotiations with the European Union.

It looked like a clever, confident move by a leader whose party was as much as 20 points ahead of the Labour Party opposition in opinion polls.

But after a campaign scarred by the two deadly attacks in Britain, lackluster media appearances and misjudged policy announcements, it looks to some like evidence of hubris and political shortsightedness.

May was first elected to Parliament in 1997, and soon established a reputation for unflashy competence and a knack for vanquishing her rivals.

In 2002, she warned Conservatives that many voters saw them as the “nasty party.” Unlike the arch free-marketeer Thatcher, May often speaks of giving the poor a helping hand and lifting barriers to social mobility.

While Thatcher was a groundbreaking woman who disparaged feminism, May helped set up Women2Win, a group that aims to bring more women into Parliament.

May’s sense of social responsibility was nourished by her upbringing as the child of a rural Anglican vicar. In contrast to predecessor David Cameron, who was the wealthy product of elite private schools, she represents what’s often called “middle England” — middle-class, middlebrow in taste, middle-of-the-road in politics.

She enjoys cooking and walking in the mountains with her husband Philip, whom she met at Oxford University. Her only touches of flamboyance are fondness for bold outfits and brightly patterned kitten-heel shoes.

When Cameron became prime minister in 2010, he made May home secretary, and she held the post for six years — an unusually long time in a notoriously thankless job, responsible for borders, immigration and law and order.

She wasn’t afraid to make herself unpopular. In 2012, she was booed at a police convention over cuts to forces’ budgets.

May became prime minister partly by skill and partly by luck. She emerged victorious from a bitter and chaotic Conservative Party leadership contest after Britain’s June 2016 decision to leave the European Union. May had backed the losing “remain” side in the referendum, but promised as leader to respect voters’ will: “Brexit means Brexit,” she said.

With her determination and self-belief, May was able to unite the fractious Conservative Party, split between mutually hostile pro-EU and anti-EU wings.

But the party’s unity now looks fragile.

Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (R) attends a general election campaign event at Derwentside College in Consett, near Durham, north-east England, on June 5, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / SCOTT HEPPELL)
Britain’s main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (R) attends a general election campaign event at Derwentside College in Consett, near Durham, north-east England, on June 5, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / SCOTT HEPPELL)

An election campaign built around May’s stature has exposed her flaws. She often appears stiff and has relied almost robotically on catchphrases like “strong and stable government” for her time in office, and “coalition of chaos” when referring to her rival, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Her refusal to take part in television debates has led to allegations that she is running scared.

The Conservative Party’s election manifesto, which carries May’s imprimatur, has been accused of offering voters all stick and no carrot. It contained electorally damaging plans to cut benefits to pensioners and change the way they pay for long-term care. Opponents dubbed that a “dementia tax,” and the label has stuck.

As the polls have relentlessly narrowed, critics say the policy blunder shows a lack of political instinct that could cost May dear on June 8.

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