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...
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