1. TOWER HORROR
The grim news of the Grenfell Tower disaster is set to become even grimmer. I’m told by a London council source that the emergency services are expecting the number of deaths to be ‘more than a hundred’, and possibly ‘much more’ than that. Heart-breaking tributes are being paid to the dead and missing of the #GrenfellTower fire on a message wall near Bramley Road, close to the scene.
The accounts of the horror are almost unbearable to hear and read. Eyewitness Samira Lamrani told HuffPost UK of seeing a frantic mother throw her baby from the ninth floor into the arms of a man waiting below. “A member of the public, a guy ran forward and just miraculously grabbed the baby at the right moment,” she said. And just as with the awful terror attacks of late, the local community has rallied round to offer food, shelter, clothing.
One fireman, Mick, tweeted a pic of his hard hat, “You know it’s not going to be good when you’re told to write your name on you helmet before you go in”. Many firefighters, who are used to containing fires in flats, have said what sets Grenfell Tower apart is the way the blaze ripped up the building so quickly on the outside and inside.
There’s intense focus on the type of external cladding installed last year, with Newsnight’s Chris Cook discovering that the refurbishment used a more flammable form of material linked to other fires. As one resident put it: “I looked down the window from the 17th floor and I see the fire blazing and coming up really fast because of the cladding..it just caught up like a match stick.” Our trade press have again been superb, with FoIs from Inside Housing exposing there was last a fire inspection in the block in 2015.
I talked to the two MPs in the Commons who know more than most how terrifying the blaze must have been. Labour’s Jim Fitzpatrick and Tory Mike Penning have the distinction of being both former firefighters and ex-ministers. Both have fought tower block fires. Jim said that ‘the finger is pointing at Government’ because of delays to a review of building safety regulations, though he was at pains to say it could be months and years before we find out exactly what happened. Mike said that the cladding would need to be investigated, but so too would the lack of fire alarms and emergency lighting. As all the firefighters told us yesterday, fires will always happen, but that’s precisely why safety design and regulations are so important.
One senior Labour figure suggested to me yesterday that Grenfell Tower “is going to become a parable about inequality and austerity in 2017 Britain”. Were sprinklers not fitted because of cost? Was the cladding a cheaper alternative? Were residents simply ignored by a bureaucracy that seems designed to strip out any democratic accountability? Locals complain legal aid cuts meant they couldn’t fight some changes in the courts. Ex fire chiefs complain that the Government’s one in-three out rule on ‘red tape’ hampers any proposal for new safety regulations.
Like Hillsborough, Grenfell Tower could become a defining moment for the country and spark much-needed change. For many it will be seen as a man-made stain on our image of ourselves as a modern, wealthy nation.
2. THE TWO CHANCELLORS
German Chancellor Angela Merkel threw some shade (as the kids say) at No.10 yesterday, summing up the Brexit talks thus: “We’re ready on the European side. We’ll see about the rest”. Despite the delay to the State Opening of Parliament, May is determined to go ahead with next Monday as the start date.
But it’s the other Chancellor, one Philip Hammond, who now has more power than ever. He has his Mansion House speech tonight and is expected to push for “British business, British jobs and British prosperity” as the UK priorities in Brussels negotiations, all code for the phrase no minister likes using publicly: soft Brexit.
The Sun has a scoop that at the Cabinet’s Brexit negotiating committee, Hammond expressed ‘strong views’, and “Amber [Rudd] backed him all the way”. It also reveals that Damian Green has joined, tipping the committee’s fine balance towards Remain (it had two Leavers, two Remainers and the PM as chair, now it has three Remainers).
Hammond will tonight unveil a bit of homegrown cash to help key infrastructure projects and start-ups after Brexit. But as the FT points out, the £320m offer is tiny compared to the £7bn of finance currently provided by the European Investment Bank. He will not guarantee to replace the EIB cash. Meanwhile Hammond will have to find some more cash for schools: the Sun also reveals free primary school lunches are set to be protected in another U-turn.
3. SOFT ‘WHO?’ SHUFFLE
Jeremy Corbyn’s limited Shadow Cabinet changes barely merit the term reshuffle, given that he was simply filling vacancies. Both the election campaign chiefs Andrew Gwynne and Ian Lavery have their work recognised: Gwynne to Shadow Communities, Lavery as Party Chair. Significantly, both retain the title of co-election co-ordinators, given the party is still on election footing.
New MP Lesley Laird gets the Shadow Scottish Secretary job and Dawn Butler, who often introduced Corbyn at campaign events, is restored to Shadow Minister for Diverse Communities. Owen Smith gets Shadow Northern Ireland, an example of Team JC opting for a big tent but very much on their own terms.
And the decision to take the party chair job from Tom Watson is proof that some around the leader want to send a signal about where the real power now lies. Tom tells me he is “delighted for Ian, who has a well-earned reputation for being a talented and effective campaigner”. The very role of party chair is a bit of a fiction, invented by Blair way back and only given to the deputy leader as a Gordon Brown convention in 2007. But if you’re going to have a ‘Minister for the Today programme’, they can perhaps do their job better without overseeing a major Whitehall department.
Meanwhile, the Morning Star reports on John McDonnell speaking to the bakers’ union conference with a call to get “a million on the streets” of London for a mass protest next month. He hasn’t given up his long-held belief that demonstrations can force governments out of power. “We need people doing everything they can to ensure the election comes as early as possible,” he said.
4. FARRON GONE
So, farewell then Tim Farron. Over the past two years, the Lib Dem leader sometimes outpunched Jeremy Corbyn with a swifter, more biting quote in response to big news events. Yet the election campaign proved that his claim to be ‘the real Opposition’ always lacked the one thing you need in politics: numbers. Grabbing just 7% of the vote, and just 12 seats, his party was truly squeezed out in plenty of places by the Corbyn surge.
And it’s claimed that in some areas, like Sheffield Hallam and Leeds North West, it was Farron’s own views on homosexuality that cost them seats. In last night’s resignation statement, he finally admitted that it felt “impossible” to lead his party while also “living as a faithful Christian”. In some senses, this whole row felt like Farron’s very own version of the Tories’ ‘back to basics’, a politician getting lost in a moral maze and seen by voters as judging their values, their very identity.
But as the awful, vile abuse on Twitter proved last night, there’s little Christian charity among Farron’s critics. We’ve witnessed what philosophers call a ‘category error’ between religious belief and secular rights enacted through Parliament. Farron promoted equal rights, even if he felt the Bible viewed gay sex as a sin. Should interpretations of Biblical text or teaching really be a fit topic for political discourse? As Isabel Hardman has written eloquently, the whole episode has often proven just how illiberal we are as a society.
Now the smart money is on Jo Swinson to become the next Lib Dem leader. Vince Cable would have fancied his chances a while back, but there’ll be strong pressure to have a young woman at the top. Her only real problem is the one that dogs Theresa May too: being tarnished with austerity, having served in the Lib-Con coalition.
5. PARADE GROUND
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams and his Stormont team will meet Theresa May face to face in No.10 this afternoon, to discuss the restoration of power-sharing in Northern Ireland. Other parties, including the DUP, will also meet the PM. But as if to prove how tricky this all is, there will be “separate” talks with the DUP about the other, bigger power-sharing deal: to prop up May’s minority government.
Insiders on both sides say that the agreement between the Democratic Unionist Party and the Tories is ‘95%’ ready. But one DUP figure told me the Treasury was being ‘typically prolix’ in its insistence on financial details of the deal. But with ‘Barnett consequentials’ [new money spent on Ulster affects money spent on Scotland, Wales and England] in play, it’s not hard to see why this is tricky. Given austerity powered Labour’s election surge, just imagine the reaction if Ulster gets dollops more cash as England suffers cuts.
Remember all the panic about those ‘five days in May’, when Cameron and Clegg cobbled together a coalition Government in 2010 amid fears that delay would lead to a stock market and sterling backlash? Well, it’s now ‘six days in June’ since chief whip Gavin Williamson flew to Belfast to start haggling with the DUP. Party sources tell me ‘the markets aren’t spooked, so we have time’. The Queen’s Speech is definitely delayed and we may get just three weeks of Parliamentary time before the summer recess. Some in No.10 hope a deal can be announced early this evening, but don’t bank on it.
Some senior figures in both the Tory party and Labour party are still baffled why May is even trying to get a formal agreement with the DUP. ‘This really is a case where no deal is better than a bad deal,’ jokes one. ‘Why don’t we stare them down?’ There’s a strong feeling that the DUP would never vote down a May Queen’s speech and thereby allow Corbyn a shot at PM. But those around May think it’s worth nailing down because once the first Queen’s Speech is passed, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act kicks in - and subsequent Budgets and Queen’s Speeches are not then classed as votes of confidence. Getting over the line this month is the main focus.