Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
16 June 2017

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.

By Patrick Maguire

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.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

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.

Content from our partners
How to create a responsible form of “buy now, pay later”
“Unions are helping improve conditions for drivers like me”
Transport is the core of levelling up

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.