1. UNFINISHED SYMPATHY
The heartbreak for the residents and families of Grenfell Tower continues. But as the sheer scale of the disaster emerges, the growing anger is also palpable. That anger was typified when Mayor of London Sadiq Khan was heckled by a young boy: “How many children died? What are you gonna do about it?” The Mayor shook his hand and said he would do all he could to help.
But at least Khan met the residents, which is something Theresa May singularly, unfathomably failed to do yesterday. If Grenfell turns out to be a defining moment in our nation’s modern history, the defining political image could well that grainy, long-lens shot of a Prime Minister talking to emergency services but not to local people. It recalled that photo of Margaret Thatcher visiting the terraces of Hillsborough, surrounded by aides and police, but with not a single football fan nearby.
The contrast with Jeremy Corbyn, who hugged a worried resident, could not have been starker. The very fact that the Labour leader literally embraced the devastated community, and was allowed to do so, speaks volumes for his personal and political integrity. Yes, many of the tenants were Labour supporters, but what the locals appreciated most was someone being prepared to listen to them – after years of being ignored.
The election campaign laid bare just how socially awkward, out-of-touch and robotic May was as a politician. But all the jokes about ‘Theresa Maybot’ curdled before our eyes yesterday as she failed to show not just human empathy but genuine leadership. Of course there are always security concerns about PM visits, but they are manageable and she could have met a group of residents in a protected area. I’m baffled as to why she didn’t announce her public inquiry on site, rather than in the ivory tower of No.10 Downing Street.
Her allies say she didn’t want to distract the emergency services from their job, yet meeting residents wouldn’t have been a distraction. Some say her preferred modus operandi is of staging ‘private’ visits to hospitals for victims of terror and other disasters. There is obviously merit and genuine compassion in some of those trips being away from the cameras, but they don’t preclude a leader from stepping up to face real and searching questions from the public. Yes, deeds are more important than words. But words still matter, and being seen to listen, and even get a rough ride, are prerequisites of holding high office. Shorn of her two closest advisers, lacking even a director of communications, the PM looks incapable of making any connection with the country she leads.
Politically, Grenfell may push the Tory party’s support even further downwards. May’s personal ratings have fallen off a cliff in the week since the general election. Former Tory Cabinet minister Michael Portillo, who told BBC’s This Week “she didn’t use her humanity”, predicts she may be gone as party leader by the autumn conference.
The fear among some Tories is that if they don’t act quickly, the long-term impact of the disaster could set them back years. The Conservative pitch has long been ‘we’re not the Caring Party, we’re the Competence Party’. When your leader is not competent, let alone strong, the lack of empathy becomes even more telling. This disaster would have been bad enough for May even if she had a big Commons majority. Without one, it underlines her lack of mandate and how fragile her government really now is.
The Queen sent a heartfelt message to the Grenfell residents yesterday. During the Blitz in the Second World War, her mother and father were booed when they visited the East End. Some residents complained about Her Majesty’s furs, others pelted rubbish in the Royals’ direction. That’s precisely why the then Queen later marked the German attacks on Buckingham Palace with the words: “I am glad we have been bombed, it makes me feel we can look the East End in the face”
Author Robert Harris yesterday tweeted: “Imagine Churchill in 1940 refusing to meet the bombed-out victims in the East End”. But even Churchill had to face the raw anger of those affected. As he posed for the cameras among the rubble, he uttered his famous phrase “We can take it”. According to some accounts, one docker’s wife then shouted: “You fucking take it. We’re sick of it.” For council tenants and others across Britain who have spent years seeing their needs neglected and their views ignored, they’re sick of it too.
2. BAD CLAD AND DANGEROUS TO KNOW
The focus on the cladding in the Grenfell Tower disaster intensifies. The Times has an excellent front page exclusive that the United States had banned tall buildings from using the type of external material used in the refurbishment of the west London block.
Hundreds of aluminium panels called Reynobond are believed to have been fitted to Grenfell Tower. Reynobond makes three types of panel: one with a flammable plastic core and two with fire-resistant cores. It is thought that contractors chose the cheaper, more combustible, version for Grenfell.
A salesman for US-based Reynobond told The Times that this version, which has a polyethylene core and is known as PE, was banned in American buildings taller than 40ft (12.2m) for fire safety reasons. “It’s because of the fire and smoke spread,” he said. “The FR [variant] is fire-resistant. The PE is just plastic.”
Reynobond’s fire-resistant panel sells for £24 per square metre — £2 more expensive than the standard version. The Times has estimated that contractors could have acquired the fire-resistant version for less than £5,000 extra. No one can put a price on a life, but that £5,000 figure may well be cited again and again.
Communities Secretary Sajid Javid struggled on the Today programme to say how many of the 4,000 tower blocks in the UK had similar cladding. Former minister Mark Prisk suggested they should be demolished, and Javid said ministers would do “whatever it takes”. There’s a planned demonstration outside Javid’s DCLG at 6pm. The anger may have only just started.
3. CARE BARE BUNCH
Further evidence of the chaos caused by the over-centralised May machine is provided by fresh revelations about the Tory manifesto plan on social care. Newsnight’s Nick Watt reports that the two key ministers affected - Communities Secretary Sajid Javid and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt - were told of the proposal less than 24 hours before the launch.
That smacks of Gordon Brown hiding his Budget plans from Tony Blair until the day before. But at least Brown was Chancellor. This cunning wheeze involved co-chief of staff Nick Timothy and May’s top team appearing to deliberately keep Cabinet ministers out of the loop. It wasn’t just the advisers, it was manifesto supremo Ben Gummer too. Amazingly, his Cabinet Office took the lead in drawing up the Green Paper on social care.
George Freeman, chair of the PM’s policy board, added that “this catastrophe of a campaign” meant “there was a culture in the campaign of ‘we the five or six of us are going to do this’.”
Is Jeremy Hunt flexing his muscles now too? Yesterday, he hinted that there could be a relaxation to the public sector pay freeze, a freeze which helped drive a lot of Labour’s vote (and not just among NHS staff, one survey found Tory support among teachers had plummeted). Hunt said at an NHS managers conference that he had “a great deal of sympathy” for nurses suffering a 1% pay freeze until 2019 and would put the case personally to Philip Hammond.
4. BREXED-DUP DOCUMENT
Away from Grenfell, Theresa May has been preoccupied with the very existence of her minority government and yesterday she finally dared to take on the DUP. Tory sources signalled that the Queen’s Speech would go ahead next Wednesday, with or without a formal agreement with the Ulster party. The Tories and their smaller allies have sorted the ‘broad principles’ of the programme of bills, but it seems the wording of their deal has yet to be finalised.
Some ministers say May’s early capitulation to the DUP’s narrative last weekend proved her inexperience in hardball negotiation, but are now relieved she is belatedly asserting what power she has left. A YouGov/Times poll showed that nearly twice as many voters oppose a DUP-Tory deal as support it. And 44% of voters, including 31% who voted Tory in last week’s general election, said that doing a deal would result in a worse government than if the Conservatives tried to govern alone. With May having personally re-toxified the Tory brand of late, the danger is that being too close to the DUP will make the Conservatives electorally radioactive. And the half-life could last a long time.
But of course it’s on Brexit that May needs the Ulster party to back her too. And today the Sun has a report that Nigel Dodds and his 10-strong team will side with her to refuse an attempt to keep the UK in the EU customs union or single market. Let’s see about that.
Yesterday’s other big news was David Davis confirming that Brexit talks would indeed go ahead on Monday as planned. But the Indy reports that No.10 has yet to submit its opening ‘positioning papers’. Brussels sources, who sent their own documents four days ago, say it is “unbelievable” that such “basic” information has not been exchanged.
The cancellation of Philip Hammond’s Mansion House speech, and its signals of a softer Brexit, was ostensibly a mark of respect for the Grenfell families. Yet others in Whitehall suspect he was forced by No.10 not to rock the boat. Meanwhile, the FT has some intel on the ‘Brexit bill’ discussed in secret among the EU 27. The net cost looks like 40bn euros, which is lower than some in Brussels wanted but actually enormous politically for some Tory Eurosceptics in the Cabinet.
5. DAD DANCING
As the Lib Dems cope with Tim Farron’s shock resignation, the runners and riders to replace him already make up a third of their entire 12-strong Parliamentary party in the Commons. Yes, Jo Swinson, Sir Ed Davey, Sir Vince Cable and Norman Lamb are all considering throwing their headgear into the circular receptacle.
Many think Swinson is the inevitable choice if the party wants to change its image in the minds of voters. And the low politics has already started. The Telegraph reports Swinson supporters saying that Cable is just too old for the job, and that the party must not go “from the dad to the grandad”. “You want a generational shift,” they said.
When I once interviewed Vince in 2013, he hit out at the “pathetic” ageism in politics. “Gladstone became prime minister when he was over 80, didn’t he? I think Churchill was over 70, wasn’t he?” he said. “Talking of role models, Deng Xiaoping totally transformed China in the last century. I think he was 80 when he took over. And he survived the Long March.” It currently looks like whoever takes over the Lib Dems has a long march back to any kind of power. But if the past year has taught us anything, it’s that anything can happen.
Our latest edition of the CommonsPeople podcast is out. We’ve packed a lot in, not least interviews with ex-firefighter MPs Jim Fitzpatrick and Mike Penning on Grenfell and Cat Smith and Tom Watson on Labour’s 2017 campaign (the latter saying this really was the ‘first social media election’). We chat about the 1922 and the PLP and even have a quiz about previous Lib Dem leadership contenders. Click HERE to tune in.