The most cyn­i­cal elec­tion PR stunt of them all

22 dead, 250 in­jured. But Team Cor­byn’s first thought? It was a per­fect chance for...

The Mail on Sunday - - The Great Election Flasco -

WHEN the Manch­ester Arena bomb ex­ploded on May 22, killing the ter­ror­ist and 22 in­no­cent peo­ple, and in­jur­ing 250 more, Jeremy Cor­byn was quick to re­act, post­ing a mes­sage on Twit­ter shortly af­ter­wards and record­ing a clip for tele­vi­sion.

But in­side the Labour leader’s of­fice they were fran­tic. It was agreed that Cor­byn should go to Manch­ester, and the leader’s of­fice called Andy Burn­ham, the city’s newly elected mayor.

Ac­cord­ing to those i nvolved, Burn­ham be­came an­gered by the ‘in­ces­sant’ calls at a time when he had a ma­jor at­tack to deal with.

By the fol­low­ing morn­ing, the mayor was only too aware of the hor­rific scale of what had hap­pened. Host­ing Cor­byn was not at the top of his list of pri­or­i­ties.

‘There was a feel­ing that some peo­ple saw it as part of the Gen­eral Elec­tion cam­paign and that was some­thing we just didn’t want to deal with at that time,’ says one Manch­ester Labour source.

Burn­ham, along with Manch­ester Coun­cil leader Richard Leese and Lucy Pow­ell, the Labour can­di­date for Manch­ester Cen­tral, wanted Cor­byn to de­lay com­ing to the city un­til the fol­low­ing day.

But the leader’s of­fice in­sisted he must visit im­me­di­ately, and the ten­sion be­tween Labour of­fi­cials in Manch­ester and Cor­byn’s aides soon es­ca­lated into open con­fronta­tion.

Cor­byn’s of­fice wanted him to do a TV clip from St Peter’s Square, be­hind the Town Hall, sur­rounded by Labour par­lia­men­tary can­di­dates. His aides also stip­u­lated that t he emer­gency ser­vices’ first re­spon­ders must be there too.

The pro­posal shocked Labour’s Manch­ester con­tin­gent. ‘ It was com­pletely in­ap­pro­pri­ate to have a photo-op with the first re­spon­ders to a ter­ror­ist at­tack lit­er­ally the day af­ter it had taken place,’ says one source.

‘Some of these first re­spon­ders were deeply af­fected by what they had seen or what their friends had seen, and many of them were still im­mensely busy.’

Cor­byn’s of­fice was told: ‘Ab­so­lutely no way.’ A host of other op­tions were then pre­sented by his aides – but all of them were ve­toed by Burn­ham’s team.

An­other Labour source says: ‘Their first con­cern was how can they make sure Jeremy is in­volved and “owns it”.’

Cor­byn’s aides say dis­cus­sions were had with the unions and the emer­gency ser­vices about when and how to meet, and meet­ings sub­se­quently took place in pri­vate, but that while the Labour leader wanted to thank emer­gency-ser­vice work­ers, there was no sug­ges­tion of ‘a pub­lic state­ment with can­di­dates’.

Cor­byn ar­rived in Manch­ester and went to sign the book of con­do­lence in the Town Hall.

A vigil was planned for t he evening. Burn­ham and Leese were keen to en­sure pol­i­tics did not en­croach on the som­bre event.

They agreed that no na­tional or lo­cal politi­cians would speak and told Cor­byn’s of­fice. It burst into an ar­gu­ment when the sides met at the Mid­land Ho­tel. Cor­byn and his team made their de­sires known to Leese and Pow­ell.

Ac­cord­ing to wit­nesses, an­gry words were ex­changed be­fore the sit­u­a­tion over­whelmed Leese, who broke down in tears as he gave Cor­byn’s team the lat­est de­tails on the at­tack. ‘It was only then that they [Cor­byn’s team] thought, “Oh s***, this isn’t about us and the Gen­eral Elec­tion,” ’ says one wit­ness.

‘Leese was cry­ing – he was telling them that it was hard to iden­tify the bod­ies of chil­dren.’

Re­la­tions be­tween Burn­ham and Cor­byn had been cool at the best of times, as ev­i­denced by Burn­ham’s re­fusal to join him at a Manch­ester rally to cel­e­brate his own may­oral vic­tory ear­lier that month. Now they were in the deep freeze.

Af­ter the sus­pen­sion of Elec­tion cam­paign­ing fol­low­ing the bomb, Cor­byn was anx­ious for the cam­paign to restart. But Theresa May tried to ex­tend the sus­pen­sion over the week­end. Cor­byn’s team sus­pected May was look­ing for a po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage.

A source says: ‘Al­though the ter­ror at­tack in it­self was not to their ad­van­tage, the sus­pen­sion of cam­paign­ing was.

‘It halted our ad­vance be­cause peo­ple weren’t talk­ing about so­cial care and the de­men­tia tax.’

With just three days of the cam­paign left, ter­ror struck once again.

Aides wanted him to be on TV sur­rounded by 999 crews

On June 3, three Is­lamist fa­nat­ics went on a frenzy of vi­o­lence that left eight peo­ple dead and 48 in­jured around Lon­don Bridge.

With lit­tle more than 100 hours un­til polling, the cam­paign would once again be sus­pended and ques­tions over se­cu­rity would surge back into fo­cus. Most ob­servers as­sumed it would help May – Cor­byn was weak on se­cu­rity, af­ter all – but it did no such thing. Cor­byn suc­cess­fully turned se­cu­rity into a ques­tion of Tory aus­ter­ity.

A speech on NHS cuts was ripped up. In­stead, Cor­byn wanted to take on the Tories over ter­ror­ism, just hours af­ter an at­tack on the cap­i­tal. He de­manded an end to po­lice cuts, say­ing: ‘You can­not pro­tect the pub­lic on the cheap.’ It struck a chord with vot­ers.

Se­nior Tory strate­gists be­lieve May’s fail­ure to fight back im­me­di­ately against Cor­byn’s line of at­tack was dis­as­trous, ex­pos­ing her team’s in­ex­pe­ri­ence and un­will­ing­ness to lis­ten to ad­vice from out­side their tight in­ner cir­cle. One strate­gist dis­closed that Nick Ti­mothy and Fiona Hill re­fused to take a de­ci­sion to re­but the Labour at­tacks or move the de­bate on to some­thing else. Amid mount­ing alarm, Lyn­ton Crosby, his col­league Mark Tex­tor and Jim Messina tried to in­ter­vene. One wit­ness to a toplevel meet­ing re­calls :‘ Tex stormed in and said, “They won’t lis­ten to us on the po­lice. They won’t re­spond. They don’t think it’s a big deal. In the age of so­cial me­dia you can’t sit there for 48 f****** hours. You’ve got to re­spond in­stantly.” ’

TER­ROR AT THE ARENA: By­standers and mem­bers of the emer­gency ser­vices try to help those caught in the blast

SOM­BRE: Cor­byn looks over the book of con­do­lence

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