Its authority depleted and engulfed in outrage after Grenfell, Theresa May’s government is on borrowed time
May’s finished. The election result left her weakened but still able to operate. Then the Grenfell fire happened. Now it is clear that she is a lame Prime Minister. Her immediate response to a national tragedy was to say little and be nowhere. It fell to the Queen to acknowledge the public suffering meanwhile the Prime Minister was left faltering, attempting to recover.
Her sharp decline started when the Conservatives lost an election that should have been impossible to lose. This was a defeat fuelled by a double whammy of unforced incompetence. First, May’s policy platform attacked one of her few support groups – wealthy pensioners. The triple lock pension protection was ditched and the so called ‘dementia tax’ introduced (whereby at home social care would be paid for by patients themselves). The result was wealthy blue-blooded constituencies such as Kensington and Canterbury turning Labour. Though the wealthy weren’t the only ones put off. The dominance of Brexit and the absence of economics in the Conservative offering left an open space for Corbyn’s radical economic policy to be spouted unopposed. The outcome was the disappearance of a traditional Conservative strength: economic competence.
“May too often resembled a submarine being depth-charged”
Then came the second Conservative calamity – the campaign. When interviewed Theresa May too often resembled a submarine being depth-charged: alone and out of options, the response was always to dive deeper. It was though with each question asked an alarm bell rang ordering her to repeatedly submerge, spurting the same non-answers. But Theresa May isn’t a submarine. On the campaign trail she was a Prime Minister fighting for an increased majority. She should have had options.
Albeit, her submarine mentality was worsened by the depressing way she presented policy. What turned into a social care fiasco of U-turns and anger was meant to be a flagship policy, aimed at solving the social care funding crisis. The reason for failure was simple. Election campaigns are meant to offer hope of a brighter future, but all May did was bang on about how there are “no money trees” and how awful Jeremy Corbyn is. Therefore, her policies, regardless of their merit were seen through a prism of cold nastiness.
So, by polling day the stage was set. All that was needed was the catalyst. The election result provided just that. A hung Parliament has placed a noose around the Prime Minister’s neck as well as the House of Commons. With her authority all but evaporated, it is back benchers who are now pulling the levers.
Initially, there was an anxious reluctance within the Conservative Party for a leadership contest. The imminent Brexit negotiations and an emboldened Labour Party represented large enough dangers to prevent them from toppling May. If they did so, the thinking was that it would result in an election repeat – that they could lose.
But then a Kensington tower block housing 600 people, in 120 apartments, on 24 floors was set ablaze. This is a tragedy. It is also a sickening scandal. Sickening, because the worst traits in British politics have been laid painfully bare for all to see: short-termism, complacency and most vividly – the inequality between those who have and those who don’t.
The 79 confirmed deaths thus far are largely Conservative owned. The Conservative led Kensington & Chelsea council, as well as successive governments have ignored the inevitable. Short-termist behaviour and complacent thinking drove decisions to delay a fire safety review called for after 6 died in the 2009 Lakanal House fire. Nonetheless, ministers and those close to them were content. Faced with falling fire deaths there was little appetite for spending more money on fire safety. Hence why ex-Housing Minister and Theresa May’s new Chief of Staff, Gavin Barwell sat on the latest review into it. He thought it was the easy option. The magnitude of the task at hand meant that the calculated cost outweighed the reward. Fitting sprinklers would cost £1,200 per dwelling for example.
“He may as well have walked up to the faces of the dead, and spat”
Therefore, the cost of action and favourable statistics combined, persuading a succession of Housing Ministers (including Labour ones) to do absolutely nothing. First it was Sadiq Khan in 2009, then Brandon Lewis in 2013 culminating with Gavin Barwell in 2017. When asked why he shelved a report recommending sprinklers to be fitted on 4000 tower blocks, all the former minister could say was: “I can’t comment I’m afraid”. Criminal. He may as well have walked up to the faces of the dead, and spat. Such a reply shows the extent to which those at the top, and their advisers have been paralysed in their response to this tragic scandal. However, there’s more to this than cynical, lazy decision making in Whitehall.
There’s Kensington & Chelsea council.
It is here where May’s claim of making a country “that works for everyone” has been brought down in flames – literally. The richest council authority in the land spent under £40 million on local housing in the year it received over £55 million in rents. In 2013-14 thanks to an efficiency drive, those paying the top rate of council tax were given an £100 rebate. Those receiving council tax support or with discounted bills got nothing. One resident rightly described it as “Austerity K&C style… You give to the rich while taking from the poor”. The council has been earning money from social housing, and using the surpluses to pay for pomp and grandeur. For example, last year it spent £1.5 million on an opera for the rich, whilst refusing to invest in a £200,000 sprinkler system for the poor. The Conservatives in power to help those just about managing? Doesn’t look like it.
Conservative MPs were already sharpening their knives after election night. Although, after her failure to deal with Grenfell, they have their knives out, and are ready to thrust.
With a government set to struggle on vote by vote, and a leader who has cold shouldered the very people she claims to serve in Grenfell Tower, the UK is leaderless. A Queen Speech emphasising Brexit and little else does zilch for those at Grenfell. Nevertheless, with a DUP deal outstanding, the prospect of turning government policy into law is in serious doubt.
Sooner rather than later this reality will be realised and May will be toppled – either by the arithmetic in the Commons, or at the hand of her MPs .
It is a question of when, not if.