Theresa May's cold, insensitive reaction to the Grenfell disaster puts her in great political danger16 June 2017 | 19:04 | The Telegraph
Aides said that there were “security implications” around the Prime Minister meeting stricken residents, but that looked absurd when the actual monarch and the second in line to the throne arrived at the Westway sports centre to meet volunteers and those affected. The very phrase “security implications” can only inflame the anger of a community who already feel neglected, implying, as it does, that one of them might attack Mrs May.
She will save some face by visiting injured victims in hospital on Friday, but only some: the damage has already been done. It did not help that Andrea Leadsom, the woman who cruelly used her own motherhood as a campaign tactic in last year’s Conservative leadership contest, met residents on Friday in her capacity as Leader of the Commons, representing MPs – telling them she felt “sympathetic” to their anger. Nor did it help when Gavin Barwell, her chief of staff who is accused of glossing over fire risks when he was housing minister, marched past reporters without saying a word.
It is not enough to say May needs better advisers after the resignation of her effective but controlling chiefs of staff Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, who may or may not have persuaded the PM to make a public visit on Thursday rather than meet only emergency services in private in a 15 minute trip captured in grainy, distant photographs. These decisions ultimately rest on May alone.
The political fallout from the Grenfell Tower disaster was always going to be tough for May. She is a Conservative Prime Minister seven years into a government that failed to act on a coroner’s report after the Lakanal House fire which recommended installing sprinklers in all council tower blocks. It is a government that has also pledged to tear up red tape – the sort of regulatory environment that is now under scrutiny. The local council which has ultimate responsibility for housing in Kensington is also Conservative.
By contrast, it is easier terrain for Jeremy Corbyn, a grassroots community campaigner who, whatever else your views on him, has a natural affinity for human connection with real voters. That was clear to see in the mutual warmth between him and residents when he visited on Thursday. His call for empty properties in Kensington and Chelsea to be “requisitioned” for people made homeless by the fire – while practically problematic – taps into the mood of unease at the cheek-by-jowl inequality in the area.
Moreover, at the time the fire broke out, the PM had just returned from talks on Brexit and terrorism with Emmanuel Macron in Paris and was preparing to finalise a deal with the DUP later on Wednesday. She may have been too distracted by the clock ticking on both Brexit and trying to form a workable government majority before next week’s Queen’s Speech to have picked up the true horror of the disaster unfolding in the borough next door to Westminster.
Yet this is being charitable. May did delay talks with the DUP on Wednesday and if she had watched TV pictures of the fire raging she should have known the scale of the tragedy – that the police’s first death toll of six that emerged on Wednesday evening was a fraction of the true extent of the victims. As Michael Portillo said on BBC’s This Week: “The Prime Minister would have been shouted at by the residents, but she should have been willing to take that. You have to be prepared to receive people’s emotions and not be so frightened about people.”
May’s toughness has played to her strengths in the past; now it has turned into her most glaring weakness. This goes deeper than just her robotic delivery. The Government seems to have been slow to grasp the implications of what is turning into one of the worst peacetime disasters this country has faced. That displays more than just a lack of empathy but a failure of statesmanship. When the Queen visited the relief centre she did so not only to hear the stories of those affected but also to show what it is to be head of state. Part of the function of any political leader is to embody and reflect the feelings of their people.
Her Majesty and Corbyn have sensed the public mood, but the PM, as head of government, has not. It is a dangerous moment for her which could turn out to be her downfall.
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