LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - A suicide bomber has brought a tragic twist to the British election. The attack that killed at least 22 concertgoers in the northern city of Manchester and left another 59 injured was the country’s deadliest for more than a decade. Even in a country familiar with acts of terror, this will shift the debate.
The indiscriminate killing of civilians, some of them children, makes political rivalries seem inconsequential. Following news of the attack, Prime Minister Theresa May and her rivals rightly suspended their campaigns. If they resume before the poll on June 8, the disputes will be more subdued than before. It will be harder for May to insist, as she did in an interview a few hours before the attack, that the choice facing the British public is the “most crucial” of her lifetime.
In the immediate aftermath of awful events, it is tempting but usually wrong to assume far-reaching consequences. The inhabitants of Britain’s largest cities are depressingly used to violent attacks, from the Irish Republican Army bomb that destroyed the centre of Manchester in 1996, to the British-born suicide bombers who killed 52 people in London in 2005. In the last few years, deadly attacks have targeted Paris, Brussels and Berlin. Though police forces and security services are engaged in a constant battle to prevent such acts of violence, most people have not changed their behaviour.
Even political preferences are hard to shift. After all, the murder last year of pro-European British parliamentarian Jo Cox, days before the referendum on membership of the European Union, did not visibly change the eventual outcome.
The Manchester attack will nonetheless change the agenda. Yesterday the focus was on May’s decision to backtrack on a policy in her party’s election manifesto about the costs of social care. For the next two and a half weeks, questions of economic growth and taxation will take a backseat. That should play to the strengths of the Prime Minister, who had direct responsibility for security during her six years as Britain’s interior minister. Tragedy makes electoral politics seem trivial, but can still bring political consequences.