Donald Trump’s Radioactive Presidency Kills Reputations And Good Ideas

Donald Trump media

The dysfunctional Trump administration can make even good ideas politically toxic, and there is nobody to blame but the president himself

The problem with Donald Trump was never that he is an evil racist bogeyman who is going to whip up the American people into a frenzy of violence targeted at women, gay and trans people or ethnic minorities. This much was always hysterical leftist nonsense.

No, the problem with Donald Trump – as has become increasingly clear with every new day of his administration – is not that he is some kind of evil mastermind but rather that he is a small and superficial man, totally unfit to hold the highest political office in America; an impulsive man-child who is incapable of moderating his behaviour or restraining himself from acting on his first, worst instincts.

Worse still, Trump manages to diminish the stature of everybody close to him. While few people who joined the Trump administration at the beginning can be described as world-class minds, the likes of chief of staff Reince Priebus or press secretary Sean Spicer were once perfectly respectable party functionaries. Now they have made themselves a laughing stock through their contortions, evasions and the feuds they get themselves into while trying to advance Trump’s agenda and defend the garbage that comes out of his mouth.

But the real tragedy is that Donald Trump’s failure will take down a few genuinely good ideas associated with the administration, while through his own ineptitude, the president is succeeding in making some very nasty people in American politics – people whose reputations should rightly be in the gutter – start to look good through their opposition to him.

Take a look at the mainstream media, specifically the Washington DC political media class. These people were rightly distrusted even more than politicians by the public, fuelled in part by their slavish deference to the George W. Bush administration over Iraq and then their fawning, sycophantic coverage of President Barack Obama. These are the people who report and comment on the news with a thin patina of objectivity, but whose intermarriage, socialisation and business relationships with the political class make bias and groupthink all but inevitable.

When President Trump boycotted this year’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner he made a smart move by eschewing a black tie event with celebrities and DC power players to hold one of his trademark rallies in Pennsylvania. The WHCA responded by transforming the dinner into a gaudy, sanctimonious and cynical celebration of the First Amendment, portraying the establishment journalists assembled as fearless seekers after truth. This might have looked ridiculously self-regarding had Reince Priebus not doubled down on Trump’s idiotic, throwaway pledge to amend the First Amendment to make it easier to sue newspapers for libel – on the very same day.

Nobody seriously believes that the Trump administration will try to alter the First Amendment, or that such a move would be successful even if he did try. Nobody even really believes that such a discussion took place in the White House. But by even raising the subject and having his lackeys back him, Trump has positioned himself as directly antagonistic towards the media. And while this may play well with the base, it makes it almost impossible for principled conservatives to support him.

The same goes with Sean Spicer’s ongoing war with the occupants of the White House press briefing room, which has now escalated to the point where briefings are increasingly being given off camera, in smaller more restricted gaggles or without so much as audio recordings being permitted.

From Politico:

White House Correspondents’ Association President Jeff Mason said they are “not satisfied” with the White House putting a halt on their daily, on-camera briefings.

In an email to members of the association, Mason said he met with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to discuss the issues of the briefings. The White House has increasingly changed the daily briefings, either not having them on certain days, making them increasingly short, or hosting off-camera briefings, sometimes even not allowing the use of audio from the briefings.

“The WHCA’s position on this issue is clear: we believe strongly that Americans should be able to watch and listen to senior government officials face questions from an independent news media, in keeping with the principles of the First Amendment and the need for transparency at the highest levels of government,” Mason wrote.

Again, this is needlessly antagonistic, and a direct result of the fact that the president is an impulsive man-child who obsessively watches the daily press briefing and gets angry when his aides fail to deliver as forceful a defence of the presidential exploits than Trump would like.

The consequence is that the White House now has a nervous communications team which is reactive rather than proactive, which cannot rely on their boss not to torpedo his own administration’s efforts with a careless tweet and which is struggling to find a replacement for Sean Spicer, who is apparently being “promoted” out of the press secretary role. But more importantly, the consequence for the country is both the perception and sometimes the reality that the White House is trying to hide something, that they are unwilling to defend their policies in public because they are indefensible.

Even the good measures taken by the White House are executed poorly, in such a way as to discredit once-worthy ideas. The decision to open up White House press briefings to a number of “Skype Seats”, so that regional reporters and bloggers without the backing of large east coast media organisations are able to ask questions on behalf of their readerships, was an excellent idea. It was more than a nod to the Trump base (who tend to despise and distrust mainstream outlets like CNN or the New York Times). It was also a fair and accurate acknowledgement that news from the White House should not be filtered exclusively through the Washington DC-based political media class.

But as with so many other things in the Trump administration, a potentially worthy idea was ruined in the execution. Rather than using the Skype Seats to promote small regional news outlets or promising bloggers of varying political stripes, the White House issued press credentials to InfoWars, the conspiracy-minded site created by Alex Jones.

That’s not to say that absolutely everything emanating from Infowars is “fake news” – and a valid case for giving the organisation press credentials can be made. But having the likes of InfoWars as the de facto poster child for opening up White House press briefings to a wider pool only gives the establishment media every excuse they need to reassert their exclusive closed shop once the Trump administration is gone.

Pointing out the hypocrisy and decadence of the supposedly objective mainstream media, modernising the way that the White House briefs reporters and opening up the White House to smaller and regional news organisations. These are all potentially good actions and ideas, but all of which have been tarnished through their association with the Trump administration. The same goes for real-world policy in a whole host of areas, from immigration reform and border security to mitigating the negative effects of globalisation on workers – all problems which were ignored and festered under previous administrations, but where Trump is often doing more harm than good.

When Donald Trump’s administration reaches its merciful end – barring some kind of foreign policy calamity or self-inflicted political self destruction – we may end up most regretting not those few things which the president actually manages to get done, but the handful of once-promising ideas which fell by the wayside because the administration either couldn’t do them or implemented them in an incompetent way. We will mourn those initiatives which could have benefited the country and won popular support of only their association with Donald Trump had not rendered them toxic.

And conservatives especially will mourn the fact that through his incompetence, Donald Trump has managed to make so many bad people – from unrepentant open borders activists to the mainstream media – look good, and seize the moral high ground.

Even if you agree with Donald Trump on 100% of the issues, one surely now has to admit that the president is his own worst enemy when it comes to implementing his own policies.

And for those of us who oppose Trump, any relief at the fact that his presidency and its worst potential excesses are stuck in the quicksand is tempered by the fact that as a result, America is drifting without proper leadership while the few sensible measures advanced by the Trump administration are now so radioactive that they may never again see the light of day.

 

Sean Spicer - White House Press Secretary - Donald Trump

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Grenfell Tower And Westminster’s Assault On Local Democracy

Kensington and Chelsea town hall

The latest casualty of the Grenfell Tower fire is local democracy

One of the key ideals of democracy – only ever half-heartedly observed in the United Kingdom – is the principle of subsidiarity, the notion that higher levels of government should take on only those duties which cannot be performed at a lower level by local officials more directly accountable to local people.

Most people would agree that local people are best placed to make decisions that directly affect them and their communities. Of course, in Britain this is balanced out by our terror at the thought of a “postcode lottery” when it comes to public service provision, that gnawing feeling that someone, somewhere might be getting a better deal from the government and that it would be far better if we all resign ourselves to the same low standard of uniform mediocrity than witness excellence in some places and failure in others (see the Cult of the NHS). But generally speaking, the principle of subsidiarity makes sense to people when it is explained in abstract.

It is sad, then, to see that the latest victim of the Grenfell Tower fire is (thankfully) not another person, but rather the ability of local councils, elected by local people, to manage their affairs in the way that suits them best. This was manifested today by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid’s request that the CEO of Kensington & Chelsea council submit his resignation as an act of public contrition for the council’s chaotic and disorganised response to the disaster.

From the Guardian:

The chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea council, Nicholas Holgate, has resigned after being asked to do so by the communities secretary, Sajid Javid. In a statement Holgate said that Javid “required the leader of the council to seek my resignation”.

His resignation comes after a tide of criticism of the council, not only for the way it responded to the Grenfell Tower tragedy but also for historical neglect of poorer residents of the borough and a neglect of social housing.

Holgate said: “Serving the families so desperately affected by the heartbreaking tragedy at Grenfell Tower remains the highest priority of the council. Despite my wish to have continued, in very challenging circumstances, to lead on the executive responsibilities of the council, I have decided that it is better to step down from my role, once an appropriate successor has been appointed.

He added: “Success in our efforts requires leadership across London that sustains the confidence and support of central government. There is a huge amount still to do for the victims of the fire, requiring the full attention of this council and many others. If I stayed in post, my presence would be a distraction.”

The local council has instead been instructed to “work in a new way with different partners” going forward until the disaster relief efforts are concluded.

In some ways this speaks to the urgent need to reform Britain’s lacklustre civil contingencies protocols, which (as this blog discussed yesterday in detail) were proven not fit for purpose, with contradictory guidance about who has ultimate ownership for disaster recovery and unclear lines of communication between local government, national government and the emergency services.

But more worrying, from a democratic perspective, is the fact that the Communities Secretary has the power to unilaterally intervene and demand that a local council fire one of its own officers – for any reason, let alone mere bad optics.

Personally, I have never seen the great wisdom in councils hiring Chief Executives to effectively run their jurisdictions. One wonders what the job of councillors is supposed to be, if not that very thing. Far better to have directly elected mayors with real executive responsibility – and in the case of London, powers should either be vested in the office of Mayor of London or in elected mini-mayors for each individual borough – who are then responsible for running the machinery of local government.

To separate out the roles of political leadership and administration is itself to subvert the democratic process, as elected councillors are essentially divesting themselves of any direct responsibility for running their own fiefdoms while giving considerable power to a typically overpaid and unremarkable individual who is not directly accountable to voters. This gives local elected officials “plausible deniability” when anything goes wrong – including disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire. Rather than holding local politicians to account for their failures, instead the unelected CEO is offered up as a sacrifice to soak up the public rage while elected officials serenely glide on as though nothing had happened. This is no model for democracy.

But even though the CEO model is clearly flawed, it certainly should not be any business of central government in Westminster how the people of the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea manage their affairs. If people were politically engaged and had the will to do so – and if local elections were more than a glorified opinion poll in the gaps between general elections – then the local people could demand that the council dismiss their chief executive, or else punish the ruling party at the ballot box. But because we in this country look to central government to solve literally every one of our problems (and central government happily grants itself the authority to try), most people don’t care how their local government is organised. Turnout figures for any local election make this immediately plain.

Ultimately, there are two dangers here. The first is that by forcing the resignation of the Kensington & Chelsea Council chief executive – a huge overreach of authority by an already overcentralised Westminster government – we essentially paper over all of the cracks and flaws in our emergency response protocols. Rather than asking deep and searching questions about what went wrong at every stage of the process, we instead simply pat ourselves on the back for having forced one particular figurehead (or scapegoat) to resign and congratulate ourselves for a job well done.

But the second danger is the continued, seemingly limitless growth of the state. What is the point in having local elections or having a layer of local government if its decisions and appointments are to be arbitrarily second-guessed and overruled by Westminster? Sajid Javid is accountable to nobody in Kensington & Chelsea, and yet he saw fit to dismiss a local official whom local officials had entrusted with the running of the borough. This is appalling, and people should be outraged.

Never mind that the mere presence of an unelected borough chief executive is itself a shameful abdication of responsibility by local politicians and one of the key reasons why there are so few opportunities for elected officials to gain real executive experience in local government before seeking higher office. Ultimately, if Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council want to run their administration in this ludicrous way and the people are lethargic enough to allow it to continue, then Westminster has no business meddling in their affairs and picking and choosing who should be allowed to perform that role.

Some aspects of government – such as emergency response and disaster recovery – clearly require the close interaction of different levels of government and a variety of different agencies. But who Kensington and Chelsea council choose to keep in the position of chief executive should have absolutely nothing to do with Sajid Javid, Theresa May or anybody else in central government.

When it comes to designing protocols and procedures which clearly spell out how these different levels of government and different agencies work together during the emergency response and disaster recovery phases, there is clearly a vital role for national government. That is exactly the kind of high-level central planning that national government is designed to do. But when it comes to deciding who can and cannot serve in a position reporting to local government, Westminster needs to butt out. It sets a terrible precedent and undermines what little local democracy we actually have in Britain.

We are all outraged by the Grenfell Tower fire and we all want to see tangible actions taken to hold those responsible to account and prevent future occurrences. But mindlessly clapping along as the state makes yet another power grab and undermines the very idea of local democracy even further is not a sensible response to last week’s tragedy.

Theresa May’s beleaguered government has enough to be getting on with at the moment, without acting like a glorified parish council on top of everything else. We must stop encouraging Westminster to do so, and demand a revolution in local government instead.

 

Kensington Town Hall Protests - Grenfell Tower

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A State Of Unpreparedness: Lessons In Disaster Recovery From The Grenfell Tower Fire

Grenfell Tower fire - disaster relief - Red Cross

The chaotic government response to the Grenfell Tower disaster has made it worryingly clear that despite extensive legislation and incredible local spirit, Britain’s civil contingencies and disaster preparedness protocols are not fit for purpose

“The Government’s handling of risks and emergencies in recent years has failed to inspire public confidence. In a range of crises, from the Foot and Mouth outbreak through to the grounds for war in Iraq, official predictions or capabilities have been found wanting. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 tenders reassurance by the promise of systemic planning and activity in civil resilience, though defence lies beyond its scope. The wide-ranging powers in the Act have the capability of delivering on the promise. But, as shall be revealed [..] efforts will be hampered because the legislation is hesitant and uneven.”

– Clive Walker and Jim Broderick, The Civil Contingencies Act 2004: Risk, Resilience and the Law in the United Kingdom

And so, on Sunday, the inevitable happened: the government took over direct control of the Grenfell Tower disaster relief efforts from the beleaguered Kensington & Chelsea borough council, following days of disturbing reports about a lack of proper coordination on the ground.

At the government’s request, the British Red Cross has now expanded from providing psychosocial support, fundraising and donation processing services to being the primary coordinator of the community assistance centre, distributing donations and being the single point of contact for anybody needing help. While organisations like the Red Cross had been on-site in some small capacity even while the fire still burned, they are now to significantly step up their presence and the type of support they are offering.

The Times reported:

The British Red Cross was drafted in to help with disaster relief in west London last night after Theresa May admitted the initial response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy was “not good enough”.

The charity, part of the International Red Cross, which is more usually deployed in war zones and after natural disasters in the developing world, was recruited to give “psychological support” to survivors and the emergency services.

May praised the response of the fire brigade, police, NHS services and the local community as “heroic”. But in her first admission that the official response failed survivors and relatives of the dead, she added: “Frankly, the support on the ground for families who needed help or basic information in the initial hours after this appalling disaster was not good enough.”

Senior staff at Kensington and Chelsea council were ordered to stay at home yesterday after ministers decided they were not doing a good enough job.

Instead, officials with crisis experience were sent in from Westminster and other councils as well as Whitehall departments.

More disquieting accounts of the local council’s failure to get a grip:

A senior government source said Kensington council had been “decapitated”. Ian Austin, the Labour MP, said: “Isn’t it a good job that we’ve got charities and aid workers ready to step in when one of Britain’s richest councils can’t sort its own mess?”

While Paul Waugh provided this rather more encouraging update on Tuesday:

At last, the authorities seem to be getting some kind of grip on the response to the Grenfell Tower disaster. The PM chaired the first taskforce meeting yesterday and last night had some stats that showed progress, with £200,000 being distributed yesterday from the £5m emergency fund.

The Grenfell Response Team – a pan-London, Whitehall, police and British Red Cross effort – said 78 families were on course to be rehomed locally by Monday night. And 126 hotel places have been found. DCLG expected all councils to tell it by last night how many tower blocks needed extra safety checks.  Testing of samples of cladding begins today with all councils told to assess their building materials.

It is heartening to see the situation finally being stabilised, but it is also slightly worrying that it took a Cabinet-level intervention – with the prime minister taking personal charge of the taskforce only to delegate the heavy lifting to the Red Cross – to bring what is effectively (considering all of the worse possibilities lurking in the shadows) a mid-sized disaster relief campaign back under control.

But at this point they had no option. It has become increasingly clear since the Grenfell Tower fire that while our emergency services are incredibly brave and well-trained, there is no similarly disciplined and well-equipped group able and fully prepared to step into the void to help deal with the humanitarian consequences of a disaster once the first responders have done their job.

Frustratingly, it quickly became evident that the huge outpouring of public support for the survivors and bereaved was not being effectively harnessed and proactively directed to those in greatest need – not through any absence of goodwill but because of a failure to properly plan and delineate responsibilities.

And as the days wore on following the tragedy, there grew a disquieting sense – first highlighted on this blog, and later expanded upon – that our civil contingency procedures are not working properly, and that ultimate responsibility for dealing with the aftermath of a mass casualty incident with major damage inflicted is currently falling down the gaps between central government, local government, charities and private citizen volunteers, none of whom have an incentive to take ultimate ownership or be the public face of the response. And so a giant flaw in Britain’s emergency planning measures revealed itself.

The lynchpin of Britain’s emergency response protocol is the Gold-Silver-Bronze (or strategic, tactical and operational) Command structure, which was designed to coordinate the response of emergency services to a serious situation but which in actual practice is also used to organise preparedness for other events such as football matches and concerts.

But the Gold-Silver-Bronze Command structure – established after the 1985 Broadwater Farm riot, strengthened by the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act and invoked as part of standard practice in response to the Grenfell Tower fire – is clearly inadequate to dealing with the aftermath of a disaster from the point when the “blue light agencies” (fire, police, ambulance) have brought the immediate issue under control.

The Gold Command structure is useful primarily for coordinating the activities of first responder agencies from a strategic and tactical level. It has far less applicability when it comes to dealing with the human aftermath in the event of displaced or homeless people, where the police have only a limited role and the fire and ambulance services almost no role. The British Red Cross, for example is not wired in to this command structure as a matter of course, even though it has become evident that no other British agency possess the expertise and experience in dealing with the humanitarian aspect.

This is a design flaw that has lurked unnoticed for a long time. The vast majority of incidents in which the Gold-Silver-Bronze command structure is utilised, from football games to terrorist attacks, do not take place in residential settings – so once a situation has been brought under control and the locality is cleared, non-injured people can be reasonably expected to find their way home and fend for themselves. There is no humanitarian aspect, so to speak, as soon as the last victim has been put in an ambulance and carted off to the hospital or coroner.

But in the event of a disaster such as Grenfell Tower, where domiciles themselves were destroyed, there is often no home or alternative shelter to go to. After the fire, people found themselves homeless and in the well-meaning but erratic initial care of various community groups, religious organisations and the local Kensington and Chelsea council, outside any formal command structure overseen by government.

Unfortunately, the council’s role in coordinating the response and the amount of effort required on their part was not properly spelled out in advance in our emergency planning laws. Ironically, the level between Gold Command and Central government, which once defined the role of regional government offices in responding to a disaster, was abolished under the previous Conservative-LibDem coalition government.

Thus, in yet another example of the gross overcentralisation of all aspects of British government, local councils were effectively cut out of the loop when it came to disaster response, at least formally speaking. This is probably why it took the better part of a week – and was trumpeted as a huge achievement when it finally happened – for Kensington & Chelsea council workers assisting in the relief effort to even be issued with official council staff vests so that people could easily identify them and seek assistance.

From the Guardian:

At the Westway centre where the relief effort is being coordinated, there appeared to be evidence of much greater efficiency in efforts by councils, the Red Cross, the NHS and other officials to help residents after days of chaos. For the first time employees of Kensington and Chelsea were visible wearing nylon vests marking them out as council staff.

This, apparently, is what happens when you cut an entire layer of government out of emergency planning and disaster preparedness protocols without properly thinking through the consequences. Even wearing matching clothes becomes a challenge. We should be glad to hear that the relief effort is now finally being coordinated more effectively, but one wonders what is the point of local government if it is to have no formal role (let alone overall responsibility) for keeping citizens safe and ensuring their welfare following a disaster?

It need not be like this. When I first flagged concerns about the Grenfell Tower disaster relief operation on this blog, I recounted my experience of watching state government, local government and voluntary aid organisations working seamlessly together following a deadly tornado in Missouri:

I happened to be living in the American Mid-West when a huge tornado ripped through the town of Joplin, Missouri back in May 2011, killing 158 people and levelling entire neighbourhoods. Driving into town two days later, it looked for all the world as though an atomic bomb had gone off. Whole blocks of houses were reduced to matchsticks. Big box retail stores had been blasted away so that only their steel frames remained standing. Even big, solid buildings like churches and a concrete-constructed hospital were damaged beyond the point of repair.

And yet within almost no time, there was real organised and disciplined aid on the ground, delivering help and comfort to people who needed it. Charities like the American Red Cross and Samaritan’s Purse sent convoys of trucks with aid and facilities such as washing machines and tumble driers so that people suddenly made homeless could do their laundry. Medical trucks administered tetanus shots to people, like me, who mucked in to assist with some of the repairs. The insurance companies sent mobile offices on the back of trucks to process damage claims. Churches organised the making and delivering of meals to those who needed them. And crucially, mobile command centres helped to coordinate the response, so that the appropriate help reached people who needed it while avoiding duplication of effort wherever possible. Honestly, the response was a sight to see and something I’m not likely to ever forget.

And all this in a town of little more than 50,000 people, far away from any real centre of political power or commerce in America. One shudders to think what might have happened if the Grenfell Tower fire had taken place somewhere further from the beating heart of our own democracy, perhaps in Sheffield or Newcastle or Glasgow.

In some ways, perhaps, the response might have been better – with fewer local resources to be brought to bear on the challenge, more may have been sent by other regions and leaders may not have been so quick to assume that somebody else was taking charge. Equally, the Grenfell Tower response may have suffered because people assumed that being in London, the logistical and welfare planning would take care of itself.

Ironically, the government’s own document – “Emergency Response and Recovery: Non statutory guidance accompanying the Civil Contingencies Act 2004” – discusses at length the importance of this phase. They even give us this helpful Venn diagram:

Civil Contingencies - Disaster Recovery - Grenfell Tower

 

There is no lack of consideration given to all of the aspects on which a proper Disaster Recovery plan should touch – see page 83 onwards in the report.

But the guidelines also go on to give these instructions:

5.2.1. The local authority is the agency responsible for planning for the recovery of the community following any major emergency, supported by other local partners via the Local Resilience Forums (LRF). In most cases, it will be sensible for top tier local authorities to lead but all local authorities and Category 1 responders should input. If there is more than one top tier local authority in the LRF, they should work together to co-ordinate recovery planning.

5.2.2. Following an emergency, the local authority will usually co-ordinate the multi-agency recovery process, including by chairing and providing the secretariat for the RCG, with support from the full range of multi-agency partners as necessary.

5.4.1. Activation of the Recovery Co-ordinating Group (RCG) is initiated by the local authority, usually following a request by / agreement with the Strategic Co-ordinating Group (SCG). An important part of the work of the RCG during the response phase of an emergency is to develop a recovery strategy (see paragraph 5.4.4) and inform the SCG of this strategy to ensure decisions made by the SCG do not compromise medium to long term recovery.

So the local authority – in the case of Grenfell Tower that would be London’s Kensington & Chelsea borough council – is nominally responsible for the “recovery of the community”, yet was partly cut out the direct interface between national government and the emergency services (through the Gold Command structure) when regional government offices were disbanded following the Coalition reviews.

To make things even more confusing, this document was produced by a group called the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, established in 2001 as a department of the Cabinet Office tasked with overseeing emergency planning in the UK. And we learn from the Metro newspaper that in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, Police and Fire Minister Nick Hurd “chaired a meeting of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat” to “coordinate the response to the disaster”.

So who was really in charge of the disaster relief response effort? Nick Hurd, in his role as chair of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat meeting following the fire? Katharine Hammond, director of the CCS since 2016? Theresa May, for ordering that the CCS convene in the first place? Kensington & Chelsea borough council, in accordance with the leadership role assigned by the CCS’s own guidelines, published in 2005 and updated in 2013? Central government, in its role as the “platinum” COBR level sitting above the Gold-Silver-Bronze command structure? Piers Morgan? Bigfoot?

It seems that we have protocols in place that are not worth the paper they are printed on – guidelines which foresaw a potential role for local Tourist Boards and even English Heritage in disaster recovery protocols, and yet failed to anticipate the degree to which the Grenfell Tower survivors and bereaved relatives of the victims would come to rely on the Red Cross and an army of disorganised but good-hearted independent volunteers to pick up the government’s dropped ball.

If the British Red Cross (rather than local government) is to be called upon to take operational control of the recovery process following any disaster with significant humanitarian implications then this should be clearly specified and written down in procedures, both to avoid confusion and duplication of effort but also to give the Red Cross a fighting chance of being ready to step into this role in the many various potential emergency scenarios tracked by the government.

In many ways, this would be a brilliant and quintessentially conservative solution – rather than forcing the state to duplicate services and expertise already provided by the charitable sector, instead we formalise their role and integrate them more tightly into our national emergency planning protocols. Rather than seeing the horrific Grenfell Tower disaster as an opportunity to expand the boundaries and competencies of the state even further, instead we formally recognise that voluntary organisations are best equipped to translate a huge and overwhelmingly generous public response into meaningful assistance for disaster victims.

But even if we don’t adopt this approach – even if we create a new government Disaster Recovery Agency to do the same job – at this point we just need to make sure that somebody, anybody is clearly given ownership of this phase of the emergency response process, as well as the authority and resources required to do the job.

Ultimately, it should not have taken the national government five days to recognise that our existing disaster recovery processes – in this case, seemingly half-heartedly managed by a local council whose role in the process was made murkier, not clearer, by recent guidelines – are inadequate to even a medium-sized incident in the heart of our capital city.

The Grenfell Tower fire had exposed serious failures, not just of political leadership (which this blog has covered extensively here, here and here) but crucially of planning and organisation. And we do not live in the kind of quiet, uneventful era where such government confusion and incoherence, broadcast to the entire world on television and the internet, can be permitted to continue.

This is a national security issue as much as an humanitarian one. And the worrying gaps in our civil contingencies protocol must be filled, quickly.

 

UPDATE: 21 June (15:55)

In her Commons speech following the Queen’s Speech, Theresa May finally acknowledged some of these failings:

 

The prime minister also stated that in addition to the judge-led inquiry the government would also consider implementing a Civil Disaster Response Taskforce to look at how disaster recovery processes can be strengthened and improved.

From Hansard (my emphasis in bold):

I would also like to say a few words about the disaster at Grenfell Tower. The whole country was heartbroken by the horrific loss of life and the utter devastation that we have seen. I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the friends and families of all those who lost loved ones. Today, we also think of those who survived but lost everything. One lady I met ran from the fire wearing no more than a T-shirt and a pair of knickers. She had lost absolutely everything.

Let me be absolutely clear. The support on the ground for families in the initial hours was not good enough. People were left without belongings, without a roof over their heads, and without even basic information about what had happened, what they should do and where they could seek help. That was a failure of the state—local and national—to help people when they needed it most. As Prime Minister, I apologise for that failure and, as Prime Minister, I have taken responsibility for doing what we can to put things right. That is why each family whose home was destroyed is receiving a down payment from the emergency fund so that they can buy food, clothes and other essentials, and all those who have lost their homes will be rehoused within three weeks.

There will also be an independent public inquiry, chaired by a judge, to get to the truth about what happened and who was responsible, and to provide justice for the victims and their families who suffered so terribly. All those with an interest, including survivors and victims’ families, will be consulted about the terms of reference, and those affected will have their legal costs paid. Because it is clear that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has not been able to cope with the scale of the tragedy, we will also develop a new strategy for resilience in major disasters, which could include a new civil disaster response taskforce that can help at times of emergency. We must learn some of the lessons of this and previous disasters when bereaved families have not had the support they need.

Good. This is exactly what needs to happen – a thorough review of the way that Britain’s emergency services, voluntary organisations and different layers of government respond to the aftermath of any incident with humanitarian implications.

This blog’s concern would be that Theresa May’s instinct for authoritarianism and centralisation makes it more likely that we will see an entirely new agency created as an outcome of this review, paralleling much of the work already done by voluntary and charitable organisations such as the Red Cross. We should actively guard against this approach during the Taskforce once it is established.

But duplication of effort and concerns over the size and scope of the state must take a back seat to public safety. First and foremost, local and national government should be empowered to keep the people safe and provide for their welfare in the event of disaster through the application of clear and realistic protocols. Following the Grenfell Tower fire, these protocols were found wanting. Hopefully now we will take the action needed to make them fit for purpose.

 

Grenfell Tower fire - disaster relief - Red Cross - 3

Top Image: British Red Cross

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Why Theresa May Needs To Go Now

Theresa May - Tory Leadership -resignation

Every day that Theresa May remains in office is another day that the Conservative Party is idling in neutral, failing to retool and re-energise itself to take on Jeremy Corbyn’s marauding socialists

Tim Montgomerie, writing in the Evening Standard, explains quite comprehensively why there is only downside and no upside to keeping Theresa May in 10 Downing Street a moment longer than it will take the Conservatives to organise a leadership contest to replace her.

Montgomerie writes:

Tory MPs, returning in a shell-shocked daze to Westminster for this week’s low-fat, low-content Queen’s Speech, must quickly recognise that Theresa May is as finished as Mrs Clinton. Every day she remains in charge is a wasted day. Every day the country inches closer to an election for which Jeremy Corbyn will have added more activists to his impressive turnout machine. Equally, the Conservatives will have one less day to rebuild their own offering and operation.

Mrs May’s flat-footed response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy was not just further proof she’s not that good at politics. It was another moment of not rising to the occasion as a leader with vision would do. The horrific burning alive of largely poor and marginalised people was — like 2008’s crash — another reminder of unjustifiable vulnerabilities at the bottom of society and inadequate responsibility from those at the top.

Yes. This blog has noted the number of commentators who leapt to the prime minister’s defence in terms of her out-of-step public response to the horrific Grenfell Tower fire last week. A significant minority seem to have convinced themselves that the prime minister’s excessive reserve terror at the thought of interaction with the public is somehow an admirable thing, the epitome of British stoicism, rather than further dismal evidence of Theresa May’s inability to lead.

These claims dismiss critics of Theresa May as reactionaries who just want to see the prime minister emote for the cameras and hug a few of the survivors, but this dismissive attitude completely misses the point. I don’t think anybody in Britain had any great desire to see the prime minister weeping with the Grenfell Tower victims on the evening news bulletins. They did, however, expect her to show up, even if it was politically awkward, just as American political leaders show solidarity with disaster victims in the United States and French political leaders in the aftermath of terror atrocities in France. This is not an unreasonable, irrational demand. It is Leadership 101, and Theresa May has been failing the test in manifold ways since well before the general election.

Montgomerie continues:

The most fitting memorial to those who perished [in the Grenfell Tower fire] is not to comfort the bereaved as all half-decent societies would. The best way of honouring the dead would be to deliver the scale of house-building that Conservative PMs such as Churchill and Macmillan championed but which an ideologically rigid Thatcherite dogma has since discouraged. For good measure, a government building more homes in the South would also significantly expand infrastructure in the North. The everyday so-called current government spending still needs trimming but leaving the next generation with inadequate roads, railways and broadband is just as irresponsible as leaving them up to their necks in debt.

I’d put believing that Elvis Presley is still alive on equal par with the claim that Mrs May could launch this agenda or something similar. Despite the words she uttered in Downing Street after first becoming PM she has done nothing of consequence for communities suffering most from the multigeddon of globalisation, open borders, automation and the collapse of the working-class family.

Rather than overhauling a threadbare party machine that helped lose a 20 per cent opinion poll lead, she has reappointed her Tory chairman. Those thinking the days of treating her Cabinet with disdain are over should look at her careless loss of two of the Brexit department’s four key ministers last weekend, a week before today’s starting gun for talks.

Also true. While this blog has focused on the need for conservatives to start transmitting a positive, optimistic message and defence of their worldview if they want to stand a chance of competing with the parties of the Left for the youth vote, good messaging alone is not enough. And while acts of pandering and voter bribery – such as matching Labour’s pledge for free university tuition – are rightfully unacceptable to conservatives, it should not be impossible for the Tories to recognise that their current housing policy (or lack thereof) is a punch in the gut to any young person not fortunate enough to inherit from their parents or be helped onto the housing ladder by them. Planning laws need to be urgently reviewed and liberalised. The Left wants to build council houses for all, so that everybody is dependent on the state for one more thing. Conservatives should counter with a bold proposal to expand the supply of private housing for rent and purchase.

Montgomerie is also right to criticise the party machine. CCHQ has presided over the near-total gutting of the party in recent years, from the winding up of the terminally dysfunctional Conservative Future youth movement to the neutering of the constituency associations and the megalomaniacal insistence of central control over candidate selection so as to ensure the continuance of the current system of patronage and nepotism which gave us such wonderful “rising stars” as Ben Gummer. Theresa May is not responsible for the party machine that she inherited when she became prime minister last year, but neither has she shown the slightest interest in revamping the party and opening it up to outside talent. The necessary change will not come so long as she remains leader.

Montgomerie’s conclusion is also strong:

A new PM and a contest necessary to establish who it should be will not be good for the nation’s immediate peace of mind or for business sentiment, but there are no easy options from where we are. What Britain does have is a two- to three-month window before September’s German elections. After that, Brexit negotiations will be fast and furious.

The Tories need a contest thorough enough to identify a team as much as a leader, and an agenda for social renewal as much as for Brexit. With both established, there is a real chance of stopping the momentum building behind Jeremy Corbyn — and it must be stopped. His views on tax, state power and defence would enfeeble this country.

We must not underestimate Corbyn. Voters who yearn for change may well roll the dice if forced to choose between Corbyn and “the same old Tories”. If, after all, people can convince themselves that the moon landings were staged, they may even believe Corbyn is equipped for Britain’s highest office.

There is never a good time to instigate a divisive, ugly leadership election campaign between general elections, but far better that Conservatives bite the bullet now than wait until a year into Brexit negotiations before swapping out the leader of the country. It’s bad enough to have to consider changing horses at the water’s edge of Brexit negotiations; changing horses mid-stream would only undermine the British negotiating position further.

And as Tim Montgomerie rightly says, a leadership contest is needed to identify not just a leader but also a team and a set of values – not just relating to Brexit – around which the party can coalesce and campaign. The 2017 general election campaign was a miserable affair in which Tories – led from the top by Theresa May – refused to make a bold, positive affirmation of free markets or other traditional conservative standards, instead portraying “austerity” and limits on the state as a necessary evil rather than as a potentially good thing in and of themselves.

The Tories were tricked into fighting on Labour’s turf (arguing about inequality) when they should instead have proudly made the case that conservative policies expand the pie for all while Jeremy Corbyn’s focus on equality of outcome promises only more equal slices of a rapidly diminishing national pie. Conservatives essentially went to fight in this general election only to discover that their leader had broken their best ideological weapon in advance of the battle. No wonder they lost ground against Jeremy Corbyn’s uplifting (if loopy and fiscally nonsensical) vision for Britain.

And then there is the elusive, undefinable sense of momentum. Whatever momentum Theresa May had when she took over from David Cameron, she has now squandered it all. Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is on the march. Through her inept leadership and hopelessly prosecuted general election campaign, Theresa May literally gave 1970s style socialism a foothold back in our national politics, and raised the real risk that Corbyn could enter 10 Downing Street as prime minister if her shaky minority government were to fall. Prior to the election her aura of strength and stability was severely knocked by the multiple terror attacks on British soil, some of which exposed failings for which she was directly accountable as Home Secretary.

And now the Grenfell Tower disaster response has revealed the prime minister to be a shrunken, fearful and traumatised figure, clinging on day by day while colleagues openly worry about her mental state of mind. Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan between them have assumed the role of national Consoler-in-Chief, while Theresa May skulks in Downing Street and only meets with the survivors and bereaved relatives under duress. This might be partly excusable if she had organised a first-class disaster response plan a la Gordon Brown, but she didn’t. Instead there were days of chaos and confusion before Whitehall finally took over the response from Kensington & Chelsea council.

Rightly or wrongly – and the vast majority of criticism directed at Theresa may has been fully justified – the impression is of a prime minister in over her head, unable to regain her political footing and behaving in an entirely reactive way rather than giving the country the proactive leadership that it needs. There is no coming back from such a self-inflicted calamity. There is no PR job that can be done to repair the damage. And if Theresa May is hanging on in some desperate bid to burnish her legacy with a smattering of minor accomplishments before her inevitable removal then she is not only deluding herself but also putting herself before the Conservative Party, and party before the country.

So let’s bring on the contest. Let 48 Tory MPs submit their letters to the 1922 Committee and formally trigger a leadership challenge, forcing the prime minister’s resignation. There is no reason for us to continue to “bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of”. The undiscover’d country could hardly be any worse.

 

Theresa May - Downing Street

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People Don’t Want Theresa May To Emote, They Just Want Her To Lead

Theresa May - Grenfell Tower fire - London Fire Brigade

Not the “Princess Diana Effect”

Sadly, Brendan O’Neill has jumped on the Theresa May apologist bandwagon, mocking the prime minister’s critics for supposedly demanding that she “perform” for us, wearing her emotions on her sleeve as she weeps with the survivors and bereaved relatives of the Grenfell Tower fire victims.

Apparently by criticising the prime minister’s slow, tone-deaf response to the tragedy and its aftermath we are behaving like a baying mob seeking emotional catharsis rather than concerned citizens with legitimate fears about the quality of leadership that Theresa May is providing. But this is to misunderstand the nature of the public anger directed at the prime minister, and assumes that the hard left socialist agitators who shout the loudest are somehow representative of all of May’s critics. They are not.

O’Neill writes:

Do people want Theresa May to weep in public? Allow herself to be pelted with rotten fruit? Make herself available for cries of “murderer” even though it’s ridiculous for her to be accused of murder? What if it isn’t in her nature to show her feelings to strangers — should she still do it? For the good of the nation? I’m finding this climate of emotional retribution quite ugly, I must say. The public’s urgent questions and anger over Grenfell are being channelled by some into a narrow, cartoonish anti-Toryism designed to hurt May and help Labour. To refight the General Election on the ruins of this building strikes me as a far more callous thing than May’s inability to emote for the cameras.

Ross Clark jumps to the same baseless and rather condescending conclusion (those silly plebs want to see emotion, but we enlightened people are above such base considerations as whether or not the prime minister can act like a real leader in public) over at the Spectator:

If she still hasn’t got the message, it is this:  you are expected, Mrs May, to go and blub before the cameras. You are expected to hug, to hold and say that you share everyone’s pain, that you will not rest until you can make sure that tragedies like this will never, ever be allowed to happen again. That you might have been working behind the scenes since Wednesday on an appropriate regulatory response to follow the disaster counts for nothing at all; it is just tears, please.

The idea that Theresa May is some kind of heartless creature who has not been affected by the Grenfell disaster is absurd. I have never met her, but it is quite clear from the look in her face that she is she is as shocked by the whole thing as we all are, one or two psychopaths aside. It is just that she has a very English facet of character which, until a couple of generations ago, was seen as an asset: she has an aversion to showing emotion in public.  

As a public figure in modern Britain, however, this will no longer do. What used to be called a stiff upper lip is now seen as fault, if not a disability which requires treatment. The new rules of emotional correctness demand not just that you care but that you can cry with the people.

This is asinine. I don’t think that any sane critic of Theresa May wants the prime minister to “weep in public” or “blub before the cameras”. That’s not what this is about. The problem is not Theresa May’s failure to behave like the most unhinged of Princess Diana mourners and rend her garments in front of the television cameras. The problem is her complete and utter failure to lead, at least according to any modern definition of leadership in the age of television and social media.

Would Theresa May have been subjected to angry, painful and politically awkward scenes had she gone to meet the survivors and volunteer disaster relief workers in public, the day following the fire? Of course. But as a leader, you suck it up. Even if the people heckle, you show up and let the victims of Britain’s worst fire since the Second World War know that their plight and their concerns are receiving the direct and personal attention of the head of government.

It isn’t that a prime ministerial visit would make much of a tangible difference to the relief efforts. But the visual would have been very powerful, and that counts for a lot when it comes to public sentiment. I wrote the other day of examples of politicians in America mucking in and helping with disaster recovery efforts as a means of showing solidarity and giving the appearance of engagement. Neglecting to do so, and then only relenting a day later and agreeing to meet the affected people in tightly controlled circumstances, away from the television cameras, is a failure of leadership plain and simple.

That’s why Theresa May has to go. Either she doesn’t realise that her behaviour has consistently fallen short of the standards expected of a 21st century leader, or she does realise but is incapable of improving her performance. And unfortunately, Brendan O’Neill has conflated his justified distaste with the way that left-wing agitators from Jeremy Corbyn on downwards have sought to exploit the tragedy for political gain with the erroneous idea that Theresa May’s lacklustre response to the crisis (and leadership in general) should therefore be immune from criticism. It shouldn’t.

Is there a cartoonish anti-Tory sentiment out there? Absolutely. I have been writing about it and criticising the left’s reduction of conservatives to two-dimensional cartoon villains more or less constantly since I started this blog in 2012. And are many of the hysterical accusations being hurled at Theresa May completely outlandish and hysterical? Yes, of course they are. But Theresa May has also opened herself to vociferous and fully justified criticism thanks entirely to her astonishing failure to lead or carry out the basic entry-level requirements of a modern head of government.

This is not the same as demanding that Theresa May “performs” or emotes for us, or leads us in some kind of cathartic national therapy session. This is about demanding that the prime minister either steps up and acts like a leader, or quits the field so that somebody else can do the job.

As a country we are drifting at the present time, and Theresa May bears the overwhelming share of responsibility for this fact. Acknowledging this fact and holding the prime minister to account for her repeated abdication of leadership does not mean validating the separate, cynical attacks of the hard left.

On the contrary, it is our duty to demand strong and effective leadership, and to refuse to settle for Theresa May’s pitiful approximation of the same.

 

Theresa May - Downing Street

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