The price of beans: today in Britain, some working families are so stretched that parents are going without the basics so that they can feed their children. Photo: FELICITY MCCABE
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Why are so many people using food banks?

Last year, almost a million free food parcels were handed out. At the Hammersmith and Fulham Foodbank, Sophie McBain meets the people only a pay cheque from crisis.

Parsons Green is a quiet, affluent neighbourhood of west London. The streets surrounding the green are lined with smart delis, boutiques and champagne bars, and the well-off regulars at the White Horse pub on the corner have earned it the nickname the “Sloaney Pony”. The red-brick terraces of the nearby Peterborough estate sell for £3m or more. Tucked between two of these multimillion-pound homes is ChristChurch Fulham, an Anglican church that since 2010 has housed the local food bank.

Between April 2014 and January this year, Hammersmith and Fulham Foodbank handed out more than 3,000 free food parcels. Most of its clients have travelled in from more deprived corners of west London or further afield, but once or twice residents of the Peterborough estate have been forced, by an unexpected job loss and huge debts, to come here for help, too.

“Most people are only a pay cheque away from a crisis,” said Daphine Aikens, the food bank’s founder. We spoke last summer in the short lulls between new arrivals. Every now and then she jumped up from her chair to clear away plastic tea and coffee cups and cake plates, or to make sure the leaflets from local charities were arranged just so on each table. It was an unexpectedly quiet morning, she said, but still a steady stream of people turned up. A mother-of-three who had fled an abusive relationship; an old man; a young couple; a skinny teenager in an oversized hoodie; a single mother with learning difficulties and her ten-year-old son, who translated for her; an Eritrean asylum-seeker whose claim had been rejected, and who wasn’t eligible for a parcel but had nowhere else to go. “I really can’t help you again,” the volunteer said, searching the woman’s face for a sign of understanding.

Aikens used to focus on giving to international NGOs, until she discovered how many people were going hungry closer to home. When she brought up the subject at church a member of the congregation directed her to the Trussell Trust, a charity that runs the UK’s largest network of food banks. Aikens says her work is inspired by her Christianity. “Part of our faith is that we want to serve and to love, and believe people are of value,” she explained. “Lots of people haven’t ever been told they’re of value. Here we can tell people they’re of value, that they deserve the food.”

The Trussell Trust operates as a “social franchise”, which means that each food bank is run as an independent charity but the central organisation provides training, guidelines and logistical support. The details vary from town to town but the overall set-up is the same. Doctors, social workers, the police and various charities hand out vouchers to people in crisis. With this voucher, they can then collect three days’ worth of food from their local food bank. Food banks were designed as an emergency stopgap: the aim is that people should collect no more than three parcels, by which point they should, in theory, have found a more sustainable solution.

The trust was founded in 1997 by two former UN workers, Paddy and Carol Henderson, and was originally conceived to support street children in Bulgaria. Then, in 2000, Paddy received a call from a mother in Salisbury whose children were going hungry. Her story inspired him to open his first food bank in the city, which he ran from home. In 2004, he decided to expand the model. “The simple phrase that stuck with us was that ‘if Salisbury needs a food bank, every town should have one’,” says Chris Mould, chairman of the Trussell Trust, who has worked with the organisation since 2003.

In recent years both the number of food banks and the numbers of people who use them have risen exponentially. Between April 2008 and March 2009 Trussell Trust food banks handed out 25,899 parcels. In the corresponding period in 2010-11, covering the time of the last general election, it gave out 128,697. By last financial year (2013-14), that figure had grown nearly eightfold to almost a million parcels. This year the figure is likely to be higher still: 492,741 parcels were given out between April and September 2014, an increase of 38 per cent over the same period in 2013.

This is not the full picture. The Trussell Trust’s 430 or so food banks are believed to account for roughly half the country’s network, but there is no complete database of the charities giving out emergency food aid. The lack of data is partly due to the government’s apparent lack of curiosity about how many people are falling through its welfare net. “The government does not monitor the use of food banks and has no plans to do so,” the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) confirmed in response to a Freedom of Information request in December 2013. In March, the department confirmed that this remains its position.

When a series of reports drew links between government welfare policies and increased food bank usage, the DWP repeatedly insisted there was insufficient evidence for these claims. “Figures used in the media about food banks have been self-reported by food bank providers and their users, and the statistics have not been independently checked or verified,” the DWP said in 2013. Chris Mould of the Trussell Trust told me he “would push back very strongly on criticism of the data”, and emphasised that the trust complies with Office for National Statistics guidelines as best it can.

The government also does not collect data on people living with food insecurity in the UK, although in December 2013 a group of six experts, in a letter to the British Medical Journal, described food poverty as having “all the signs of a public health emergency”. In August last year John Middleton, vice-president at the Faculty of Public Health, the standard-setting body for public health specialists in the UK, told the Observer that GPs had reported a rise in Victorian-era diseases caused by malnutrition, such as rickets and gout, as Britons on low incomes struggle to feed their families healthily. So, even without comprehensive data, the very existence of food banks poses a troubling question: why, in one of the world’s richest societies – and in a country that prides itself in having welfare provision designed to care for its citizens from cradle to grave – are so many Britons at risk of going hungry?

***

Sam and Joe (their names have been changed at their request, as have others in this article) have been together for just over two years. They met at work, at a supermarket in Hertfordshire. It’s just as well they have each other, they told me, because they don’t have much else. Most days they eat once. They wait until as late as they can possibly manage, then they have a meal of rice or potatoes or (“if we can afford it”) bread – “anything filling”, Sam said. I met them on their second visit to Tower Hamlets Foodbank, in a church surrounded by council blocks. This east London borough has the highest rate of child poverty in the city; the average income is £11,400. I arrived ten minutes before the food bank opened and already a queue had formed outside the door.

Not long after the couple met, Joe, who is 27, left his job to move in with his grandmother and care for her while she was dying of cancer. Then Sam’s mental health grew worse and she found she could no longer work. She thinks she is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome – she was abused as a child and left home at 15, and before she met Joe she had been in a string of violent relationships – but she has been waiting for months to see a psychiatrist. When Joe’s grandmother died, they were not allowed to keep on her tenancy. They thought they would end up homeless, but just in time they found somewhere to stay. The problem was that for two months their housing benefit didn’t come through. “We’re just sort of stuck at the moment,” Sam said.

The report Emergency Use Only, published last November jointly by the Child Poverty Action Group, the Church of England, Oxfam and the Trussell Trust, found that Joe and Sam’s experience is not uncommon. Many people arriving at food banks have experienced a number of personal shocks in succession – bereavement, the loss of a job, illness – but between half and two-thirds of users end up at food banks because of problems with benefits. This includes delayed payments, changes to benefits such as the reduction in Disability Living Allowance and financial penalties known as sanctions. As a condition of receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), claimants are required to demonstrate that they are actively looking for work, usually by applying for a set number of jobs a month, and to participate in various training schemes. If they fail to meet their targets they can be sanctioned, meaning that their benefits are cut. Equally, people receiving Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) because of a disability or a long-term health condition can be sanctioned for failing to attend a mandatory interview or training programme. In the year to September 2014, 895,000 sanctions were placed on ESA and JSA claimants, up from 564,000 in the final 12 months of the last Labour government.

Emergency Use Only estimates that between 20 and 30 per cent of food bank users have recently faced a sanction. In January this year a former jobcentre official told a parliamentary inquiry that staff were put under pressure by their bosses to meet targets for sanctioning clients. This might explain some of the more unfair examples unearthed by the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty, which included a man who was sanctioned for writing on the wrong line of his form, and another fined because the job application forms he was required to fill didn’t arrive until after the deadline for applying.

A standard sanction under JSA is loss of benefits for four weeks, or 13 weeks in the case of a second “offence”. For a single person solely reliant on JSA, this can lead to a complete loss of income for up to three months. Under the DWP’s policy, if the suspension of support is going to cause “hardship” you can apply for a payment of 60 per cent of JSA, or £43.40 a week, after two weeks. Its guidelines make clear that it expects that an individual’s health will suffer under sanctions: “it would be usual for a normal healthy adult to suffer some deterioration in their health if they were without . .  . sufficient money to buy essential items for a period of two weeks”. Pregnant women, families with children or people with long-term health problems may be exempt if it is deemed they would “suffer a greater decline in health than a normal healthy adult”.

Under a pilot “Foodbank Plus” model run by Tower Hamlets, all visitors to the food bank also speak to an adviser. Martin Williams of the Child Poverty Action Group, who is one of the co-authors of Emergency Use Only, helps visitors with their benefits claims: how to appeal decisions, speed up delayed payments, access advances. The people he sees seem increasingly desperate, he says. For instance, it’s not uncommon for someone with severe mental health problems to be rejected for Employment and Support Allowance and placed on Jobseeker’s Allowance instead. They are then immediately sanctioned because they are too unwell to meet the job application and training requirements for JSA claimants. “Before, you’d see people who have been without help for a couple of weeks, but now it’s not uncommon for people to go without comfort for months,” Williams said.

On the afternoon I visited, he helped Joe and Sam apply for a short-term benefit advance to cover their immediate shortfall and said he would chase up their unpaid housing benefit. How did they feel about the future? I asked. Sam was already gathering up their plastic bags of tinned goods and Joe was still slumped in his chair, baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. “I’ve given up on optimism or pessimism,” he said.

The trestle tables at the Cadge Road Community Centre in Norwich were laid out with animal place mats and plastic cups of squash. Reel 2 Real’s “I Like to Move It” was playing at high volume, but the 50 or so children, from toddlers to early teens, lined up patiently for a plate of chicken curry. One boy whose head barely reached above the counter requested a cheese sandwich with no crusts and no butter instead, and the volunteer chef cheerfully obliged. Later there would be Angel Delight and biscuits, and then the children would learn to take fingerprints, detective-style.

When the Trussell Trust learned from local teachers and parent support advisers that many families were struggling to feed their children in the school holidays, they wanted to make sure the FISH lunch clubs they helped set up in response were fun, says Grant Habershon, Norwich Foodbank’s manager. When he retired in 2010 he started working for the Citizens Advice Bureau, but he realised that when people were in need of food he had few places to which he could direct them. When he started the food bank, he estimated he would be supplying food to 2,000 people in the city, but now it’s almost 10,000. “There have always been people who’ve struggled, there’s always been a gap [between someone falling into need and the state stepping in] . . . but it’s just too big at the moment,” he said.

The FISH clubs, which started in 2013 and offer lunches to children during the school holidays, hint at the second major driver of food bank use: low income. According to Trussell Trust figures, 22 per cent of food bank users between April and September 2014 were referred for this reason. “The determinants of food poverty and food insecurity are big, structural issues, including – and very importantly – income. That is one of the most important things: people need more money,” says Hannah Lambie-Mumford, a faculty research fellow at the University of Sheffield specialising in food poverty and insecurity in Britain.

Every year since 2008 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has published its minimum income standard report. Members of the public are asked what goods and services they believe they need to ensure an adequate standard of living, and then JRF calculates how much you need to earn to reach this benchmark. As the cost of living has increased, the minimum income standard has risen but national income levels have not kept up. Today a single person on benefits earns less than 40 per cent of the minimum income standard, and families with children earn less than 60 per cent. It isn’t only the unemployed or those on benefits struggling to make ends meet: up to a quarter of food bank users are in work. Despite a prevailing political rhetoric promising to support “hard-working families” or “alarm-clock Britain”, 700,000 people in Britain are on zero-hours contracts with no guaranteed work hours, according to the latest ONS figures; and the JRF income standard – set at £16,300 a year for a single adult with no children in 2014 – is higher than the minimum wage and almost £5,000 higher than the average salary in, say, Tower Hamlets.

Kate had been bringing her three boys, aged three, five and seven, to FISH clubs since the 2013 Easter holidays. Unlike her sons, she hadn’t had lunch that day – though she picked at their leftovers. “It’s all right. If you don’t eat in the morning or the afternoon, you’re not hungry anyway,” she said quietly. That night they’d eat hot cross buns for dinner, and then they’d be out of food for two days. Until 2012, Kate worked in the customer service department at a large international insurance company. She never imagined she’d start to rely on benefits, let alone food aid, but then her partner left her.

“I dreaded handing my notice in, but I just couldn’t afford the childcare. It’s a benefits trap, because there’s no way out of it,” she said. Things were OK for the first two years, but when prices kept on rising she struggled to make ends meet and now her debts rise a little higher every month. “To live like that for two years – there’s nothing brighter, there’s nothing coming . . . I’ve gone from shopping at Sainsbury’s to Tesco’s, to Asda, to Aldi, and now I don’t even do a weekly shop.” She paused for a moment. “If I was telling you this story two years ago I’d be in tears, but not now.”

I wondered what she would do in the next two days, with three children and an empty fridge. She said she might visit her mum, who had no idea how much Kate was struggling but usually cooks lunch. She didn’t want to visit a food bank. “There are people out there more desperate than me. I’ve got a sofa to sell before I’ll go to the food bank,” she replied. “It’s a pride thing. You don’t want people to know you’re on benefits.”

***

On 19 December 2014, the NG7 Food Bank in Nottingham closed. In the 30 months before its closure it had fed over 5,500 people but it decided its position was untenable. In a media statement in November it objected to the local council using food banks, it said, as an alternative to state welfare provision, writing that “despite our best ongoing efforts, we have recognised that we are not being used as a temporary service of last resort, but rather being seen as a part of the long-term strategy of replacement for statutory services, [which] have a duty and the resources to address a large part of the need. We recognise that other approaches are now required to attempt to change the current situation for many in our communities.”

Of central concern to NG7 was the council’s provision of emergency funds, such as crisis loans or benefit advances. These used to be administered by the government’s Social Fund, but in April 2013 the fund was abolished and responsibility for emergency hardship payments was devolved to local authorities on a discretionary basis. Nottingham City Council’s hardship fund is designed to support a range of people in short-term need, including those fleeing domestic violence, care leavers, and those waiting for a decision on a benefit claim or who have recently experienced a disaster. NG7 objected to the council’s policy that “the expectation would be that they [applicants] seek help from friends or family and the food banks”. In other words, the council is using food banks as an excuse to give out fewer emergency payments.

“In my research, very often volunteers at food banks will say, ‘We wish we didn’t exist; our ultimate aim is to do ourselves out of business,’” says Hannah Lambie-Mumford of the University of Sheffield. This reflects not only a belief that people shouldn’t be going hungry in the UK, but also that the provision of crisis care should be the state’s responsibility. “We believe every citizen has a right to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship, which include the ability to clothe yourself, house yourself and feed yourself, and we think it’s government’s responsibility to ensure that,” Chris Mould of the Trussell Trust told me. “We designed ourselves to avoid being drawn into the world where a food bank is seen as part of the ongoing and enduring provision for people facing poverty . . . because you end up creating something which is an alternative to the state.”

In this way, food banks have become central to a much broader debate on welfare reform and the limits of state responsibility in modern Britain, a discussion that has become more urgent as the state has cut back spending. The Trussell Trust’s advocacy work has elicited a range of government responses, from dismissal to hostility. In July 2013 the Conservative minister for welfare reform Lord (David) Freud, a former investment banker, said that demand for food bank use was being driven by supply, telling peers: “If you put more food banks in, that is the supply. Clearly food from a food bank is by definition a free good and there’s almost infinite demand.” Similarly, in December 2014, Matthew Hancock, the business minister, said that he believed the use of food banks was driven by the publicity surrounding them. Ten months earlier, a Defra-funded report had concluded that there was no evidence that food bank use was fuelled by increasing provision. This report was delivered in June 2013 but it was not published for another seven months.

At other times the government has been more directly confrontational. In April last year the Daily Mail published quotations from “a senior Whitehall source”, accusing Chris Mould of “fairly misleading and emotionally manipulative publicity seeking”. Mould says he has been “put under pressure” by government officials after the Trussell Trust started pointing out that austerity cuts were affecting low-income and single-parent families disproportionately, and drawing attention to the effects of  benefit changes. “There was no communication, or dialogue, or engagement,” he says of attempts to talk to the DWP about the trust’s concerns.

Mould says that in 2013, when the Trussell and other charities criticised the decision to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent a year, regardless of inflation, a senior official (Mould didn’t want to give his name) warned that the government could close the trust down. (“Just so we’re clear . . . the comment that ‘the government might try to close you down’ was made in anger, and I didn’t take it seriously,” he later told me.)

At the end of last year the tone of the debate shifted. The All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger published its findings in a report – Feeding Britain – and reinforced the messages of earlier third-sector studies by noting the extent to which low wages and benefit changes have fuelled demand for food banks. It made 77 recommendations, almost half of which were directed at the DWP and dealt with how benefits and crisis loans are organised and administered.

“There’s a growing consensus that what we were saying early on is true. It’s just sad that it’s taken so long for the weight of the evidence to be such that the government has had to do something,” Mould says. The Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, said he would look “very carefully” at the report, and announced a publicity campaign to ensure that people are aware that benefit advances are available.

“A couple of years ago, we saw head-in-the-sand denial. Today, I think we’ve got little more than window dressing so far,” Mould said when we spoke in February. He sees “little evidence” that the government is acting on Feeding Britain’s recommendations. “We haven’t won hearts or minds: [the report] hasn’t made that much of a difference, because I don’t think it’s been taken on board by the people who have the power and responsibility to make things better.”

However, the food bank movement does have many supporters. According to the most recent report by Church Urban Fund, about three-quarters of all churches in the UK now house food banks and the Church of England is adopting an increasingly active role in the welfare debate. Just before Christmas the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, told the Mail on Sunday he found the plight of food bank users “more shocking” than poverty he had witnessed in refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mould said he is heartened by the numbers who donate food to the Trussell Trust and the degree of public support it has – donations shot up last April after the Daily Mail published an “undercover investigation” into “scroungers” abusing the food bank system. “One of the things is that poverty is very prevalent,” he said. “Lots of people have experienced it, so they have friends who have been there, they have had parents who have been there, children who have suffered, they have struggled themselves . . . In that sense, the public are much more aware than they used to be that people are at times going hungry in the UK.”

***

A month after I interviewed Joe and Sam in Tower Hamlets, Sam agreed to meet me for coffee. When she didn’t show up or answer her phone I wondered if she’d changed her mind. Then two weeks later I saw her at the food bank. She smiled and waved me over. She looks different, I thought, and she said things had changed. Joe had found a job at another supermarket. She was due to have her first counselling session the next week, then a job interview. She wasn’t sure if she was well enough but she wanted to work. “I need my own money and my independence because I feel trapped. And he does, too. Trapped,” she said. So why, I wondered, was she at the food bank again? Joe’s benefits had stopped and until his first pay cheque he couldn’t afford the bus to work, so the Trussell Trust was advising them on how to find a short-term loan. They were both ready to move on with life; they just needed the bus fare.

Sophie McBain is a New Statesman contributing writer

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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