Theresa May speaks to members of the fire service as she visits Grenfell Tower in London on Thursday
Theresa May speaks to members of the fire service as she visits Grenfell Tower in London on Thursday.
Leadership requires courage, imagination and empathy. In the two long days since the first flames licked up the newly fixed cladding on Grenfell Tower in west London, the prime minister has failed to show any of these qualities. On Wednesday, the first day, she said nothing at all until 6.30 that evening. On Thursday morning she ventured out to the scene of the disaster, where she rightly congratulated the emergency services on their inexhaustible efforts. But she made no contact with the shattered survivors, nor the faith workers and volunteers who have poured in to the area with such compassion. Less than an hour later Jeremy Corbyn arrived. He listened to people, he hugged them, he promised to find out the truth and told them he would speak for them. Theresa May could have said and done all of those things, but she did not.
The inferno at Grenfell Tower in which 17 people are now known to have died begins to look like Britain’s Hurricane Katrina. Mrs May is President George W Bush, off the pace, inarticulate, seemingly uncomprehending – a leader failing the great ordeal by disaster that is the ultimate test.
And, like Katrina, Grenfell Tower is proving more than a test of leadership. It is exposing, like Katrina, a terrible series of ill-judged and sometimes catastrophic human interventions that have been made over the past six or seven years by a government that every day seems more distant from the lives of ordinary people: the way the constant anxieties of the residents’ action group were ignored, the deliberate decisions by ministers to delay upgrading fire regulations, the plans that have emerged to opt out of EU building standards as a Brexit bonus. Worst of all, and closest in parallel to the warnings of inadequate flood defences in Katrina, the coroner’s recommendations after the inquest into the deaths of six residents of Lakanal House in south London in 2009. Reading these, it is very hard to understand why they were not immediately enforced around the country – in particular the advice to retrofit fire suppressant systems in older blocks. This vital recommendation was merely repeated by the then communities secretary, Eric Pickles, to local councils as advice. Not surprisingly, without the funding to make it viable, councils adopted a minimalist approach, enhancing fire protection only in the highest-risk housing.
By lunchtime on Thursday the government machine began to show signs of life. Bogged in the convenient marshes of parliamentary propriety, a Commons statement was ruled impossible, but a “briefing” for MPs was arranged in a committee room, which, when permission was given for the cameras to be turned on at about the midway point in proceedings, revealed two middle-ranking ministers, Nick Hurd from the Home Office and housing minister Alok Sharma, fielding questions from, among others, the omnipresent Mr Corbyn. Very significant concessions were made: all homeless residents will be rehoused in the area, and children will be able to continue at their schools. One of the catastrophes of Katrina was a great diaspora, and the irrecoverable disruption of children’s education. An inquiry under the 2005 act is pledged, with the powers to send for people and papers. Those are very important moves. Their implementation must be closely monitored. In particular, ministers must not use the powers they have over the inquiry to do anything that compromises its impartiality. There is another imperative: the families of victims and survivors must have legal aid so that they are on a level playing field at both the inquests and the inquiry. That must be guaranteed at once, so that they have the space to begin the process of grieving.
This is only the start of what is necessary for the survivors of Grenfell Tower. But it is too little and maybe too late for a prime minister whose approval ratings have crashed, whose government is in crisis, and whose authority seems to be draining away.