Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Theresa May's response to the Grenfell Tower fire has made her position even weaker

This could prove to be the moment that May's premiership was damaged beyond all repair.

Seventeen people have been confirmed dead after the fire at Grenfell Tower in Kensington. Authorities fear that number could rise beyond 100. Scotland Yard, who have launched a criminal investigation, warn that they may never be able to identify all those killed.

But how, and why, was this allowed to happen? Though the Prime Minister has ordered a public inquiry, it is already clear that this travesty was utterly avoidable. 

Today's papers catalogue a litany of failings. Residents had long complained the building was a firetrap. Their flats had no had no sprinklers. The tower's aluminium cladding was banned in the US, was deemed flammable by authorities in Germany and cannot be used in Australia. It would have cost just £5,000 more to install a fire-resistant equivalent. It is no wonder that MPs have called for corporate manslaughter charges. 

Fury is now the overriding emotion. Sadiq Khan was heckled by residents yesterday. But much of it is directed at a government and Prime Minister whose response has perceived as severely wanting. Today's Guardian leader says Grenfell is May's Hurricane Katrina: a devastating tragedy of almost incomprehensible scale met, they say, with very little by way of courageous leadership.

Things are unlikely to get any better. Yesterday may well prove to be the moment May's premiership was damaged beyond all repair. Her visit to the site - which saw her speak to emergency workers for a private briefing rather than survivors - has seen her slammed for lacking emotion, though she reportedly burst into tears when confronted with the scene.

But ultimately it is the perception that matters. It was revealed yesterday that Jeremy Corbyn now beats the Prime Minister for public approval. The contrast between their two visits could not have been more stark. The Labour leader embraced survivors and the bereaved. May did not. Last night she was accused of "hiding her humanity" by Michael Portillo.

Portillo characterised the Prime Minister's reaction as typical of her desire for "entirely controlled" situations. What will surely worry her now is that she will be able to exercise no control whatsoever over a crisis that asks probing and fundamental questions of her abilities and the record of the Conservatives in government.

The resignations of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, the Prime Minister's joint chiefs of staff, were supposed to have steadied the Downing Street ship. Now their replacement could become the story. Former housing minister Gavin Barwell is under scrutiny after it was revealed he "sat on" a report warning of fire safety risks in tower blocks. The tragedy has prompted searching questions on austerity and the quality of housing provision in our great cities, and as yet ministers have few answers.

Bad news begets more bad news and May has still yet to form a government. Her position was already precarious. As the government becomes a lightning rod for public anger, it may yet become untenable.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Theresa May missed an easy opportunity on EU citizens' rights

If the UK had made a big, open and generous offer, the diplomatic picture would be very different.

It's been seven hours and 365 days...and nothing compares to EU, at least as far as negotiations go.

First David Davis abandoned "the row of the summer" by agreeing to the EU's preferred negotiating timetable. Has Theresa May done the same in guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens living here indefinitely?

Well, sort of. Although the PM has said that there have to be reciprocal arrangements for British citizens abroad, the difficulty is that because we don't have ID cards and most of our public services are paid for not out of an insurance system but out of general taxation, the issues around guaranteeing access to health, education, social security and residence are easier.

Our ability to enforce a "cut-off date" for new migrants from the European Union is also illusory, unless the government thinks it has the support in parliament and the logistical ability to roll out an ID card system by March 2019. (It doesn't.)

If you want to understand how badly the PM has managed Britain's Brexit negotiations, then the rights of the three million EU nationals living in Britain is the best place to start. The overwhelming support in the country at large for guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens, coupled with the deep unease among Conservative MPs about not doing so, meant that it was never a plausible bargaining chip. (That's before you remember that the bulk of the British diaspora in Europe lives in countries with small numbers of EU citizens living in the UK. You can't secure a good deal from Spain by upsetting the Polish government.) It just made three million people, their friends and their families nervous for a year and irritated our European partners, that's all.

If the United Kingdom had made a big, open and generous offer on citizens' rights a year ago, as Vote Leave recommended in the referendum, the diplomatic picture would be very different. (It would be better still if, again, as Vote Leave argued, we hadn't triggered Article 50, an exit mechanism designed to punish an emergent dictatorship that puts all the leverage on the EU27's side.)

As it happens, May's unforced errors in negotiations, the worsening economic picture and the tricky balancing act in the House of Commons means that Remainers can hope both for a softer exit and that they might yet convince voters that nothing compares to EU after all. (That a YouGov poll shows the number of people willing to accept EU rules in order to keep the economy going stretching to 58 per cent will only further embolden the soft Brexiteers.)

For Brexiteers, that means that if Brexit doesn't go well, they have a readymade scapegoat in the government. It means Remainers can credibly hope for a soft Brexit – or no Brexit at all. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496