Boris Johnson, U.K. foreign secretary  (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

May Sends Johnson to Labour Heartland as Terror Shapes Campaign

(Bloomberg) -- Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May deployed Boris Johnson to the northeast of England in a bid to conquer Brexit-supporting Labour strongholds, even as the fallout from the London terror attacks continued to dominate the U.K. election campaign.

Johnson, one of the faces of the Leave campaign, said on Tuesday that only May can “get Brexit right.” Labour aimed to shore up its support in working-class areas with a warning that the premier’s plans to cut winter heating support for the elderly will cause thousands of extra deaths.

May Sends Johnson to Labour Heartland as Terror Shapes Campaign

Boris Johnson on June 6.

Photographer: Scott Heppell/AFP via Getty Images

“This is the moment to believe in the huge potential of Brexit Britain,” Johnson said in a speech in Bishop Auckland, where Labour won by 3,500 votes in 2015. “It is absolutely vital on Thursday that we elect a government that will negotiate with courage, determination, optimism and belief in the outcome.”

Faced with a dramatic narrowing in their poll lead, the Tories are trying to drag the campaign focus back to Brexit and May’s leadership. But three days after the London Bridge attack, they continue to face criticism for cutting police numbers, with Johnson batting off questions about how the terrorists slipped from authorities’ grasp.

Johnson, a former mayor of London and now foreign secretary, said voters are right to ask “how did this person slip through in the way it appears he has” and pledged to intensify efforts to stop foreign powers funding extremists.

London Mayor

Wading into a campaign from which he has has been largely absent, Sadiq Khan, Johnson’s successor as mayor, said it will be harder to thwart terrorist attacks if May wins the election. The Tories plan 400 million pounds ($516 million) of cuts to the Metropolitan Police, Khan said.

“Cuts on this scale would make it harder to foil future terrorist attacks on our city and as Mayor of London I’m simply not willing to stand by and let that happen,” the mayor said.

But even as the Conservatives, and particularly former home secretary May, are slammed for squeezing police budgets, the Labour Party is struggling to convince voters it has the answers on security. Home Affairs spokeswoman Diane Abbott has had a series of slip-ups in television interviews where she has failed to show a grasp of the main issues.

May, who called the election early when polls pointed to a landslide victory, continues to lead an aggressive campaign to seize Labour seats. That was underlined by a stop Monday evening in the northern city of Bradford -- in a seat her party last won in 1918. She’s aiming to persuade those who voted for the U.K. Independence Party in 2015 to back her this time.

More than 7,000 voters backed UKIP in Bishop Auckland, where Johnson made his speech, and Labour’s Helen Goodman could lose her seat if they switch to the Conservatives. A ComRes poll of those who backed UKIP across the country in 2015 for Tuesday’s Sun newspaper found 48 percent would be backing the Conservatives.

Pollsters are divided on how big the Conservatives’ advantage is in the final days of campaigning, with a survey by Survation on Tuesday showing a one-point lead while ICM on Sunday put the prime minister’s party 11 points ahead. A projection by YouGov Plc suggested May could even lose her parliamentary majority.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on the other hand spent Monday evening at rallies in the northeast defending constituencies his party won two years ago. He spoke to thousands of supporters in Blyth, where the Labour candidate could be under threat if all UKIP voters switch to the Tories, and Gateshead, where Labour won 57 percent of the vote in 2015.

May Sends Johnson to Labour Heartland as Terror Shapes Campaign

Jeremy Corbyn

Photographer: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Labour is also switching its focus from security toward welfare support for retirees.

The party will highlight Tory plans for the slice of the population that has the highest voter turnout and seek to exploit the chaos over May’s social-care plans in what economy spokesman John McDonnell described as the “biggest attack on pensioners in a generation.”

“Removing the winter fuel payments from millions of pensioners could leave thousands of the most vulnerable at even more risk this winter,” McDonnell said in a statement. “On top of their dementia tax, it means that pensioners in our country will struggle to heat their homes and keep their homes under the Tories.”

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Labour emailed supporters on Monday asking them to help get out the vote in seats the party already holds rather than those it wants to wrest way from the Tories. Messages seen by Bloomberg News directed activists to the London districts of Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Westminster North, Ilford North and Eltham -- all four won by Labour in 2015.

The major parties carry out their own polling and use details gathered by activists knocking on doors to assess support in individual constituencies. So the fact that the well-resourced Tory operation is sending May to Labour seats once seen as safe is a hint that the election might not be as tight as national opinion polls suggest.

Last week Jim Messina, a former White House deputy chief of staff who joined the Tory campaign in April, hit back at YouGov Plc’s suggestion that May could lose 20 seats -- and her majority.

“Spent the day laughing at yet another stupid poll from @yougov,” Messina wrote on Twitter on May 31. He challenged the company’s general manager, Ben Leet, to a “bet for charity” on whether the figures prove to be accurate.