A burnt out first floor window shows fire damage in the house where five people died. Photograph: Getty Images
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Letter from Harlow: Reaching for utopia

After the war, Harlow was supposed to offer east Londoners the chance of a fresh start and a stab at the good life. This month, it became the place where a suspicious fire killed six members of a Muslim family.

1.
Very early on the morning of Monday 15 October, residents on the Barn Mead estate in Harlow, Essex, were woken by screams and by the sound of a man in distress. One woman looked through the window and saw that the three bedroom, end-of-terrace house opposite was on fire and a man whom she recognised as Abdul Shakoor, who is 45 and a hospital doctor, was being restrained by neighbours as he struggled to get back inside the burning building where he lived with his wife and their five children. “My children are in there,” he was shouting, “my children.”

By the time emergency support vehicles arrived, the house was filled with thick, acrid smoke and fiercely ablaze. Dr Shakoor’s wife, Sabah Usmani, who was also a doctor, and three of their children were declared dead at the scene; two other children, both severely burned, were pulled from the house alive and taken to the local Princess Alexandra Hospital, where their father worked as an endocrinologist.

Muneeb, who was nine, died later that day; his younger sister, Maheen, at the age of three the baby of the family, was transferred to the burns unit at Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford, the county town of Essex.

Dr Shakoor, who is suffering from profound trauma and smoke inhalation, was also moved to Broomfield: his wish was to be as close as possible to his daughter as doctors fought to keep her alive. On the evening of Thursday 18 October, it was announced that Maheen, too, had died. The tragedy was complete.

Essex Police have said that the fire, which started in the downstairs lounge, spread quickly and is “being treated as suspicious”, even though no evidence has been found to suggest that an accelerant was used. Shortly after the fire started at the house that Monday morning, a Ford Focus belonging to another local resident was also set alight in the street nearby. “By the time emergency services arrived the fire [at the house] was intense which implies it had been burning for a while,” Chief Inspector Justin Smith said.

“The car wasn’t burnt out, however. We now need to understand the timings, and how long the car had been alight compared to how long the house had been alight – that is a key point.”

There have been previous incidents of arson on the Barn Mead estate and the police are describing it as “more than a coincidence” that both the house and the car should have been set alight around the same time, if not simultaneously, and within close proximity. Were the Shakoors, who were devout Muslims and of Pakistani origin, the victims of a racist attack? Or was the previous occupant of the house, which the Shakoors had been renting for less than a year, the intended victim as has been suggested? (A friend of the Shakoors, a fellow Muslim named Safia Anwar, told me that the family, who for a period lived in Saudi Arabia, had been looking for a suitable property to buy in the town. They were settled in Harlow, their children attended the local Abbotsweld Primary School, and they wanted to stay on, she said.)

2.
I know the Barn Mead area well. My paternal grandfather used to live on the estate in a modest flat that overlooked a comprehensive school. “All day they’re coming in and out, in and out,” he used to complain of the pupils. From the outside, the flat seemed to be very much as it was when I used to visit him, and it’s just a few hundred yards from where the Shakoors lived. Close to the house they rented, on some local fields, are three recreational football pitches where I sometimes used to play on Sunday mornings as a young boy.

My grandfather moved to Harlow from Forest Gate, on the edges of Epping Forest, a strange, shadowy nowhere zone where the East End thins out and merges into Essex. He was retired, his wife had died, and he was suffering from tinnitus and wanted to be closer to his only child, my father, who, like so many aspirational east Londoners, had moved as a young man to the Essex new town, where land was plentiful and new family houses were abundant and available for rent or purchase. My grandfather stayed on in Harlow long after we left the town in the early Eighties.

Many of those who came to live in Harlow in the years after the war were in one way or another in flight from history – from the inner city, from the cramped Victorian terraced streets of their childhoods, from the bomb sites and ruined buildings – and Harlow offered them a new start, a new life in a centrally planned, socially engineered, semi-rural environment. One of the consequences of growing up in a new town as I did – always so much emphasis on novelty, on newness, on the here and now – was that you felt part of a kind of utopian social-democratic experiment. The state was providing for you and those around you, nearly all of whom were of similar background. It was as if the state had a vision of what the postwar good life should be and somewhere we all fitted into it.

“The town attracted progressives, community-minded people,” Ron Bill, a local historian and Labour Party activist, told me over tea and biscuits when I visited him at home in Harlow this past week. “Frederick Gibberd [the consultant architect planner for the Harlow development] was an example of such a person. That first wave of people who came to the town in the Fifties and Sixties – many of them socialists and communists – they wanted to build something. The trouble is there wasn’t a second wave equal to the first. And their children moved away, as children do.”

Harlow doesn’t, today, feel like the optimistic town it did when I was growing up there in the Seventies, when it had such an excellent infrastructure of new houses, roads, cycle tracks, playing fields and children’s play schemes. Back then, it had an Olympic-sized swimming pool (since closed and demolished), an exceptionally well-regarded multipurpose sports centre (since sold, flattened and replaced with houses), a dry-ski slope (long gone), a skating rink (now abandoned), a velodrome (gone) and an expansive, landscaped town park through which a river flowed (now sadly neglected).

The Labour Party was powerful in the town and for many years controlled the council. The local playhouse was ambitious and sophisticated in the choice of films and plays it chose to show and put on. The large central library was superbly stocked with books and magazines, and it was there that I used to read the New Statesman and the Spectator.

It was a provincial boyhood and I yearned for greater adventure and excitement, but in retrospect – and it took me a long time to understand and accept this – I was fortunate to have lived in Harlow when I did. It offered me everything I needed, apart perhaps from a rigorous academic education; there was no local grammar school and by the mid-to-late Seventies most of the town’s eight comprehensive schools were, in ambition and attainment, becoming more like what Andrew Adonis now calls “secondary modern comprehensives”.

“Yes, some of the failures of Harlow are to do with the schools,” Ron Bill told me. “The larger problem was that the original New Towns Act of 1946 stipulated that the new town could keep its assets – from the industrial estate and the commercial side of the town centre – but this was reversed and the assets of the town went to private business and the Treasury.

“The whole aim of the new town was to give people a better life, to build family homes surrounded by green spaces. We wanted to satisfy the demands and aspirations of people – for a town swimming pool, say, or for a meals-on wheels service. But the swimming pool failed because it wasn’t being maintained properly. The sports centre was sold. There wasn’t the money to mend the ski slope. The rose beds in the town park . . . there wasn’t the funds for maintenance.

“If the industrial estate had funded the town it could have been different. But it was still lovely to be in Harlow; the corporation and council achieved a great deal. I suppose we tried for utopia but didn’t quite reach it.”

When I lived in Harlow, it felt resolutely mono-ethnic and socially narrow; there were no black boys in my year at school, and very few of Hong Kong Chinese or Indian or Pakistani origin. There were, however, several boys at the school who became members of the Inter City Firm, or ICF, the feared, ruthless and racist firm of hardcore West Ham hooligans. The National Front were active and were recruiting in the town for a while, and Ron recalls marching against them. Ultimately they were repulsed.

3.
When I spoke last week to Safia Anwar, who lives close to Barn Mead on the Woodcroft estate in Harlow, about her friends the Shakoors, she said they had been brought together by their children and shared Muslim faith. Like Sabah Usmani, Safia wears the hijab. “I saw the family every day – every day – because our children were at the same school,” she told me, in hesitant English. “They were good people and they had no trouble since they came to the town. They never spoke about any problems. We ourselves have had no problem with racism. Perhaps a little bit at the school, some of the children say things to my children . . . but this [the fire] cannot be racism.”

She paused and looked at me sadly. “My children have been asking about their friends – when are they coming back? They think the children will be back when they are better. They don’t imagine what is death.”

Woodcroft, Willowfield, Old Orchard, Five Acres: the names of what were once council or corporation estates surrounding Barn Mead are redolent of a pastoral idyll, or at least of the rural lands that were obliterated when the new town came. The actual estates, transformed by Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme, are perhaps shabbier than I remember and many of the houses need painting and care, but the streets are clean and when I visited council workers in yellow jackets were out sweeping the roads and collecting litter. In Barn Mead a mobile police station had been set up adjacent to the Shakoors’ fire-blackened house and search officers from across the county were fastidiously going about their business, knocking on doors, looking in bins and black rubbish sacks.

“We knew from day one that this could be a lengthy investigation and at this point there are no definitive answers or explanations,” said Chief Inspector Smith. “However, we are putting a huge amount of resources into this investigation. Never in my 24 years of service have we seen this level of resources – it is unprecedented.”

4.
A house fire and suspicions of a racist attack on the estate where my grandfather once lived were what brought me back to Harlow and all the memories it stirs, back to Ron Bill’s nearlyutopia. The morning of my return I parked my car outside my grandfather’s old flat and walked around streets that, even after all these years of absence, seemed so familiar. The school he used to complain about has since been renamed and relocated, and its former classrooms and offices are desolate, fenced in and boarded up. (The school was recently featured in the Channel 4 reality series Educating Essex, the title suggesting that this large and diverse county, stretching from the rural Suffolk borderlands that Constable painted to the edges of London’s East End, is a monoculture.) The local pub, the Archers Dart at Coppice Hatch, where my grandfather bought an occasional pint, was semi-derelict, its doors and windows also boarded up. These unused buildings together with the presence of so many police on the streets gave Barn Mead the feel of an estate under siege.

5.
I eventually left later that morning, feeling pretty despondent and desperately hoping that little Maheen would pull through. The next evening, I heard that she had not.

The funerals of Dr Usmani and her five children were held on Wednesday 24 October at the Harlow Islamic Centre, by which time Essex Police were no closer to solving the mystery of the house fire.

“My children,” Safia Anwar had said, “have been asking about their friends – when are they coming back? They think the children will be back when they are better. They don’t imagine what is death.”

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

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Good riddance to Boris – but the Tory party still needs to find a unifying leader

With Boris gone, Theresa May and Michael Gove are serious contenders for the crown.

UPDATE:  From the moment Michael Gove decided to run for the Conservative leadership Boris Johnsons days were numbered. This is particularly true because of the typically unequivocal comment that Gove made about Johnsons leadership capabilities or lack of them in his announcement. For Johnson has led a remarkably charmed life in both politics and journalism in recent years. Reality has finally caught up with him. It was always going to be the case that if Gove stood many who had pledged their allegiance to Johnson would, because of this lack of leadership qualities, think again. The inevitable has now happened, and Johnson, for once, has accepted reality.

Michael Gove appears, at the eleventh hour, to have learned something about Boris Johnson that anyone who has worked with him either in journalism or politics could have told him years ago: that Johnson is entirely unreliable. The leaked email in which Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, warned him of the assurances he needed to get from Johnson before pledging himself as the key supporter in his campaign turns out to have been the writing on the wall for a clear run for Johnson. Word was swirling round Westminster after the email was leaked that Johnson appeared to have offered the same senior cabinet post – believed to have been the Treasury – to more than one person in return for support. Perhaps this was down to incompetence rather than dishonesty. Gove has made his own judgement, and it is, for an intelligent and serious man, an inevitable one.

Many Brexiteers, who feel that someone who shared their view should end up leading the Tory party, will be delighted by Gove’s decision. There was deep unease among many of them about the idea of a showman rather than a statesman inevitably ending up in Downing Street. What Gove will need to do now is to persuade colleagues who had gone behind Johnson because they did not want Theresa May to shift behind him. Some of Johnson’s supporters caused enormous surprise by their decision – such as Sir Nicholas Soames, who spent the referendum campaign denouncing Johnson on his Twitter feed – and they are not natural bedfellows of his. One Tory MP told me before Gove’s decision to stand that a group of “sensible” Tories had accepted the inevitability of a Johnson victory and had decided to get around him to try to keep him on the straight and narrow. The view that Johnson is unstoppable has now been tested, and those who had made the leap to support him may now well leap back.

Following Theresa May’s very assured launch of her campaign, which radiated statesmanship and sincerity, the Brexiteers need to ask themselves what sort of candidate is going to provide the best challenge to her, for she is clearly formidable. Given the choice between a volatile buffoon taking her on or someone who is more level-headed and serious doing so, the latter must inevitably be the best option. Johnson never looked like a unifying figure, and certainly not one it was easy for rational people to imagine leading the country in an international context.

Gove’s decision not to support Johnson does not merely withdraw his personal support. It will withdraw the support of many who were prepared, reluctantly, to follow his lead and join the Johnson campaign. It has a parallel in history, which was William Hague’s decision to run on his own account instead of supporting Michael Howard in the 1997 contest after the party’s annihilation by Tony Blair. Hague won, and turned out to be a hapless leader. Gove is made of heavier metal and the party is in less perilous circumstances, so the outcome for him, should he win, ought to be better.

In the past few days a considerable portion of the Tory party has taken leave of its senses. In such a condition, envisaging Johnson as its leader was easy. Sanity and calm are now prevailing. The Brexiteers in the party – or at least that group of them resolute that they cannot have a Remainer as leader can now reflect on whether they want an act or a politician to become prime minister. At least, thanks to Mr Gove, they now have a choice.

The Johnson phenomenon

Once upon a time, often within hours of a prime minister resigning, a “magic circle” of Tory grandees would decide after “soundings” whom to send to Buckingham Palace to kiss hands as the new man. Now, the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers has sought to do what it can to emulate the process, fast-tracking the election of David Cameron’s successor so that he or she is in place by 9 September, and ignoring calls for a period of wider reflection on whom the party needs to take it forward through the uncharted waters of negotiating an exit with the European Union. Longer consideration may have been helpful, given that the party is choosing not merely its leader, but the next prime minister.

It soon appeared the main fight would be between Boris Johnson and Theresa May. Jeremy Hunt proposed himself as a “second referendum” candidate, even though the Tory party in particular wants another plebiscite about as much as it would like to put its collective head in a mincer. There was talk of two lesser cabinet ministers, Stephen Crabb and Sajid Javid, presenting a “joint bid”, even though such a concept is unknown to the Conservative constitution; and others were floating around the margins. The tumult reflects the hysterical state of mind in the party: no one in Cameron’s inner circle expected the British public to disobey orders, including, one starts to imagine, Johnson. It is only the preposterous events in the Labour Party that have stopped the Tories from seeming to be completely out of control.

It has become Tory party lore that the favourite never wins, on the precept that he who wields the knife never ends up wearing the crown. Many of the Tory MPs believed nothing could prevent their colleagues voting in sufficient numbers to put Johnson in the second and final round of the contest, the one in which all paid-up members may vote. And if he got there, they felt, the outcome was even less in doubt: he would win.

Predicting this will happen and wanting it to happen are, of course, not the same thing. A distressed Tory MP told me he expected Labour sympathisers to join his party to vote for Johnson, rather as mischievous Tories joined Labour to elect Jeremy Corbyn. The rules, however, forbid such last-minute purchases of a vote: yet the sentiment shows what an equally substantial group of Tory MPs thought of Johnson’s capabilities, and explains why the anyone-but-Boris movement sprang into action the instant Cameron ran up the white flag. They knew that, for all Johnson’s failings, and there are many, he has the entertainer’s knack of making people love him. Sadly – and this is the part his adoring public doesn’t see – things can be very different when he enters his dressing room and starts to take off the make-up. As Sir Alan Duncan said forthrightly last weekend, there is the small matter of Johnson lacking the gravitas and experience to be a credible prime minister, something MPs should have the wit to take into account even if the party in the country at large does not.

The Johnson phenomenon is not the least reason why even some of Cameron’s most consistent critics did not call for him to resign if he lost the referendum. The more time the Tory party had to consider Johnson as a potential leader, and what that entailed, the better. Some MPs are angry that Cameron did not take immediate responsibility for cleaning up the mess he had helped make and preside over the exit negotiations. His colleagues feel he simply couldn’t be bothered, which is consistent with the often idle way he ran both his opposition and the government – an idleness that prevented him putting any contingency plan in place. The grand gesture, the great claim and the sweep of rhetoric are very arresting, and take little time. Following through is harder: but Cameron has a long record of not considering the consequences of words and actions, and this debacle for him is the ultimate, and most spectacular, example.

The pessimism that Johnson’s detractors felt about stopping him rested in what they knew and saw of the self-interest of their more bovine colleagues. The first concern of one group is to back the winner, and they came to think that would be Johnson (something with the status, in those circumstances, of a self-fulfilling prophecy). They also thought that should Labour find a new leader and become a serious opposition, Johnson was the man most likely to win an election. Whether that would come next spring – if the new leader sought a new mandate as Gordon Brown did not in 2007 – or in 2020, as the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act decrees, is a separate but important question. Johnson’s acolytes let it be known he would not call an early poll. He (or any other leader) would be absolutely constitutionally justified in not doing so. More to the point, you do not plot from the womb to become the Queen’s first minister only to risk chucking away the key to the Downing Street drinks cabinet after a few weeks. However, a weakened Labour Party may prove an irresistible target, and Tories recall how history would have been different if Gordon Brown had gone to the country in the autumn of 2007, as many urged him to do.

The press – and not just on the left – could well have given Johnson a hard time. His baroque private life has exhausted its capacity to shock, but there is scope to scrutinise his record of underachievement as mayor of London; or Michael Howard’s sacking him for lying; or the Times sacking him for making up quotations (from his godfather) in a story; or his offering to assist his old schoolfriend Darius Guppy in having a journalist who had disobliged Guppy beaten up. 

The manoeuvring May

Theresa May’s ambitions have been barely concealed. She has been “on manoeuvres” since the 2015 general election. She worked out that the best way to manoeuvre during the referendum campaign was to say nothing, to avoid becoming a divisive figure. Aside from some rare moments of half-hearted support for Remain, that is exactly what she did. Had she gone the other way, the leadership contest might have seemed closer, because her seniority and experience would have matched Johnson’s charisma. As it was, until Johnson pulled out, the best her colleagues believed she could hope for, barring some dramatic development, was to come second. A Times poll on Tuesday said that Tory voters preferred her to Johnson, which had the smell of accuracy about it. Activists – those with a vote – are a different matter. They appear in no mood at the moment to elect a Remainer.

Yet they are in some measure in the mood to elect a unifier. For all his attempts at sober statesmanship since the vote, Johnson (given his past) would have had to stretch credulity even more than usual to convince as one of those. The anyone-but-Boris movement has been motivated by the list of his perceived offences and character defects. Few believe he would have plumped for Leave had he thought it would lose: Johnson’s years on the rubber chicken circuit, and his mailbag from Telegraph readers in the provinces, made him more aware than most of his metropolitan colleagues of the true nature of public feeling outside the bubble. He is seen as utterly flexible in terms of principle: and, from the nature of his campaign rhetoric, as disloyal, cynical and lazy. Critics recall the number of deputy mayors (seven at one point) he required to do his last job. He is widely considered untrustworthy.

Perhaps he could have unified activists who seem near universally to admire his carefully manufactured persona: he would have found it harder to unify the parliamentary party, and would probably require a resounding general election victory before doing so. Even then, doubts born of years of witnessing his buffoonery and prevarication would be hard to allay.

The unifiers

MPs felt that two other Brexiteers had far better credentials as unifiers. The most obvious was Michael Gove, whom some tried to persuade to stand; but until today Gove had signalled his willingness to throw in his lot with Johnson.

The other increasingly discussed name in the days after the referendum was Andrea Leadsom, the energy minister and, before that, economic secretary to the Treasury. Many even in her own party never thought of her as a potential leader until recent weeks: but these were weeks in which she showed her key virtues. She is intelligent and capable. She had a long career in business before entering government, and presents a happy contrast to ministers who spent their lives as special advisers before gracing the back benches. Leadsom is deeply principled but also reasonable: she abstained in the vote on same-sex marriage because she did not want to show a lack of respect to homosexuals and lesbians who wished to solemnise their relationships, but she could not support the notion because of her religious views. Remainers consider her to have performed uniformly well in debates and television interviews during the EU campaign, because she avoided personal attacks, spurious claims and wild threats.

She is popular with her colleagues. However, if she has let her name go forward she will start from the back of the field. It would require the sort of organisation that enabled Mrs Thatcher to beat Ted Heath in 1975 if she were to pull this off. However, should Johnson implode during this campaign, and she had become a candidate, she would be fabulously well placed to pick up his voters.

May would seem to be way ahead as the Remain candidate, but will have to earn that position in the hustings that will run over the summer. The dark horse is Stephen Crabb, who replaced Iain Duncan Smith at Work and Pensions, in league with Sajid Javid, a secret Leaver who called it wrongly and who is now trying to salvage his future. A self-deprecating man from a humble background and with few enemies, Crabb, who was previously Welsh secretary, reminds me of John Major, who was brought into the cabinet and rose rapidly. In a leadership campaign held in the middle of a parliament, Major won and became prime minister, trading heavily on a backstory of his unprivileged upbringing. He may be the man May must beat.

George Osborne has ruled himself out but remains relevant. He wants to carry on in government and, like the overgrown student politician he is, may be about to make an accommodation with those he has denounced for months in order to continue to hold a senior post. Also, not least because of Cameron’s laziness and casual attitude towards his party, he had exercised a substantial and growing influence over patronage and especially over senior government appointments. He had made a point of getting to know MPs on the way up, not least because he expected to be prime minister and wanted to be sure he had a clientele of loyalists to support him. He was starting to appoint his ministerial team, in effect, before becoming prime minister.

Osborne’s prospects have crashed, but his machine remains, for the moment, intact. If he has chosen wisely, he has a group of loyalists whom he can deploy in support of the candidate he chooses. However, now he can be of no use to his clients, it will be interesting to see whether they take the blindest bit of notice of him.

There was talk of Johnson making him foreign secretary, which would show an advanced sense of humour, given the role that person might have to play in the exit negotiations. Gove, if he had thrown in his lot with Johnson, might have ended up as chancellor.

The party is so fractious that the next nine weeks could provide a roller coaster: any talk of going back on the idea of strict border controls, for instance – something Johnson hinted at – could cause huge turbulence. I suspect we are about to find that conducting a leadership contest at any time is a project laced with tension; to conduct one in a climate of scarcely concealed hysteria is not least why anything could yet happen.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and the Sunday Telegraph

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 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies