By seeking to overtly politicise the Grenfell Tower tragedy, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party have overplayed their hand. But far-left protests and anti-Tory incitement must not excuse Theresa May’s unforgivable failure to exercise basic leadership skills
There is a bizarre new defence of Theresa May’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire doing the rounds, in which some people are claiming that public anger at the prime minister’s refusal to publicly meet with survivors and grieving relatives of the victims is somehow comparable to the way that the British people lost their collective cool over the death of princess Diana, demanding more and more conspicuous displays of emotion from politicians and the Royal Family.
Here’s Guardian, New Statesman and Spectator writer Stephen Poole scoffing at those who were angry at the prime minister’s aloofness:
Others have contrasted the prime minister’s cowardly behaviour (and her risible excuse that “security concerns” prevented her from meeting the victims) with the fact that the Queen managed to put in an appearance together with Prince William, to meet the people and offer some consolation.
Here’s the BBC making that very point, gleefully contrasting the Queen’s behaviour to that of Theresa May:
Mistakes that have included the significant time that elapsed before the Queen visited the site of the Aberfan disaster in the 1960s and the “Show us you care” newspaper headlines that were printed 20 years ago, in the days following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
As Theresa May is learning to her cost, it is a tragedy with a growing political dimension. There is a howl of pain and anger being directed at an establishment which has the royals at its heart.
There’s the talk of the divide between rich and poor. The Queen’s grandson is a millionaire prince living in a palace in the same borough as Grenfell Tower.
In coming to the site, the Queen was acting as “head of the nation” – a focal point at a moment of considerable pain. She was also providing her prime minister with a masterclass in how to respond on such occasions.
I think it needs to be made clear that Theresa May’s critics are not demanding that the prime minister engage in some kind of performative emotional labour on our behalf, or to be principal therapist to the nation. This is not like the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death twenty years ago, when there were virtually Grief Police on the streets making sure that everybody was appropriately sombre and baying crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace until the Queen showed up to personally examine the mountains of flowers.
On the contrary, May’s critics are simply expecting the prime minister of the United Kingdom to show some basic emotional intelligence and political common sense. They rightly expect Theresa May to display fundamental leadership skills instead of skulking fearfully in 10 Downing Street, terrified at the prospect of a negative interaction with members of the public.
Sadiq Khan managed to go on a walkabout and meet rescue workers and victims, and he was willing to endure heckling and visible public anger in the process. Why can the prime minister of this country not do the same, in the face of what may prove to be the most deadly fire since the Second World War? Yes, people would have shouted at her and emotions would have been very raw. But you know what? As leader of the country you stand there and you take it. You absorb the hate and you try to deliver a message of condolence, solidarity and action, even if the public anger makes it almost impossible to get your message across and the whole thing makes for awful TV. That’s just what you do.
Can anybody seriously imagine Margaret Thatcher, John Major or Tony Blair not having met personally with the Grenfell Tower fire victims were they in office at the time? Gordon Brown had the personality and empathy of a tree stump and he would have suffered through the indignity in order to show solidarity with people who are suffering something far worse than an awkward political situation.
David Cameron would have rolled his sleeves up, put his Wellington boots on and showed up to help, and probably ordered most of his Cabinet to do the same. And yet Theresa May thinks it is acceptable to sweep in by motorcade, confer briefly with the emergency services, avoid the victims altogether and then dash back to Downing Street without acknowledging the volunteers or the survivors, choosing instead to give a sterilised TV interview from back inside Downing Street.
This is Leadership 101, people. I am starting to think that there may be something physically or mentally wrong with the prime minister at this point – the utter collapse of her authority, the inability to regain her political footing, her unbridled terror and fear of any interaction with the public and her seeming unwillingness to do the basic things which are expected of the office of Prime Minister are getting mighty hard to explain away due to a mere confluence of unfortunate events or simple “bad luck”.
Obviously one should refrain from attempting to make any kind of remote diagnosis, but if the prime minister is having some kind of breakdown or stress-induced episode then she needs to resign immediately for the good of the country. And if she isn’t, then she is quite simply the worst leader Britain has suffered in nearly forty years, and she needs to resign immediately for the good of the country.
(The prime minister finally – partially – acquiesced and made a highly controlled and sterilised visit to some of the victims and volunteers this afternoon. At this point, entirely due to her own lack of leadership, public rage had reached such a boiling point that she was heckled, called a coward and her motorcade was chased down the road by angry protesters as she departed).
It is bad enough that through her inept leadership and lack of political vision, Theresa May has allowed 1970s-style Corbynite socialism to regain not just a footing in our political discourse but a very real shot at entering government and taking power. It is bad enough that the prime minister and her team prosecuted such a feeble, uninspiring general election campaign. But now Theresa May has compounded these errors by hiding away in the face of one of the worst peacetime disasters to befall modern Britain, and worse still she ceded the role of Healer in Chief to the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn.
That’s not to say that Corbyn is suddenly a saint. Far from it. The Labour leader has done everything he can to make a party political fight over something that should have united all politicians with the determination to identify the root causes of the Grenfell Tower fire and take whatever action is needed to prevent a recurrence. He has come perilously close to blaming the Evil Tories for the whole affair, which naturally has encouraged his acolytes to make that very accusation, as though Theresa May had personally ordered that the building be doused with accelerant and set ablaze. Just because this is a scandal does not mean that blood is on the prime minister’s hands.
At this point we need to keep two distinct and non-contradictory ideas in our head at the same time. Yes, Theresa May has displayed atrocious leadership skills, even by her own dismal standards, and has utterly failed to carry out the basic public duties one would expect of any other prime minister. But this does not mean that May or the Tories are culpable for the fire, or that “blood is on their hands”. This is a simplistic and reductionist take on the situation, born from the idiotic left-wing conceit that all conservatives are two-dimensional cartoon villains who actively want to harm the poor.
Therefore we should be able to condemn Theresa May in the strongest possible terms for her failures of leadership, while also condemning Jeremy Corbyn’s opportunistic scapegoating of the Conservatives as the villains responsible for the Grenfell Tower inferno. The two facts are complementary, not mutually exclusive. But ultimately, Jeremy Corbyn is simply being opportunistic as leaders of the opposition sometimes have to be. Theresa May, by contrast, has been doing everything that a prime minister should not do, and there is nobody else to blame but her.
This is not about expecting some kind of emotional performance from the prime minister. This is about expecting Theresa May to show the kind of basic leadership skills that would be expected of a small town mayor, never mind the prime minister of one of the most powerful and influential countries in the world. Theresa May couldn’t get the general election right. She can’t get the government’s Brexit approach right. She can’t even make policies consistent with her own party’s worldview or successfully articulate that vision to voters. And now she has proven herself incapable of showing basic humanity in response to a dreadful disaster.
At some point, one has to acknowledge that the game is up. Theresa May’s premiership is not going to get any better, it is not going to recover, it is not going to find stability, and every day that it is allowed to limp on, the country suffers from a lack of basic competent leadership. I don’t know whether there is some extraneous reason which has prompted Theresa May’s sudden political self-destruction, but at this point, from the perspective of what the country needs, that doesn’t matter. She needs to go, now.
This is not about expecting Theresa May to jump through emotional hoops in order to provide catharsis for a shocked nation. This is about expecting and demanding basic competence from our political leaders.
Who in the Conservative Party will step up, acknowledge that we are now drifting under the non-leadership of somebody who has proven to be completely out of her depth – in office but not in power – and force a leadership challenge?
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