Mathew d’Ancona: The Tories have learned nothing about compassion
The response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy represents a far more serious challenge to the party than the election result
British Prime Minister, Theresa May, leaves Finsbury Park mosque, where one man has died, eight people taken to hospital and a person arrested after the vehicle struck pedestrians. Visits last week by May and her colleagues to the Grenfell Tower disaster sites have been badly handled, ineffective and twitchy. EPA/SEAN DEMPSEY
Philip Hammond’s television appearances today reminded me of Nigel Lawson’s deadly critique of Margaret Thatcher in a landmark interview with Brian Walden in 1989. The difference is that this chancellor is still in post. But his stiletto blade was no less sharp.
Theresa May’s supporters had feared that Hammond would subvert the prime minister’s position on Brexit the day before the official negotiations begin. Instead, the chancellor told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that his role in the election campaign was not what he would have liked it to be. “In my judgment, we didn’t talk about the economy as much as we should have done.” Asked by ITV’s Robert Peston whether the prime minister could survive, Hammond conspicuously evaded the question.
If there wasn’t a leadership crisis before, there surely is now. As all this could become pressingly relevant at any moment, a word about procedure. Since William Hague changed the leadership rules in 1998 – principally to keep Ken Clarke at bay – there can be no “challenges” or “stalking horses”.
If 15 per cent of the Conservative parliamentary party write to Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee, May will face a vote of confidence. If she loses (as Iain Duncan Smith did in 2003) or resigns pre-emptively, a contest will then be held in which she cannot stand.
I think May should have announced a timetable for her departure on 9 June. Yet she clings on, struggling to form a pact with the DUP, preparing the Queen’s speech but cancelling next year’s, encircled by colleagues with daggers behind their backs. It is an ignominious spectacle.
Inevitably, and rightly, all politics is still refracted through the bleak lens of the Grenfell Tower horror . As thrown as senior Tories were by the election result, the panic in their voices is now of a different order.
There is a gulf between on the one hand, political miscalculation and a bad campaign, and on the other, a national tragedy that captures with ghastly clarity a much broader sense of grief, social division and unheeded anger. Wiser Tories – and they are greater in number than you might suppose – understand that the Grenfell tragedy represents a much more serious challenge than the advance of Jeremy Corbyn.
First, the incompetence with which the disaster has been handled beggars belief. One would have expected the Conservative local authority and central government to have been on the scene round the clock: vocal, visible and accountable.
As Rudy Giuliani has written of his conduct as mayor of New York City after 9/11: “I had to communicate with the public to do whatever I could to calm people down and contribute to an orderly and safe evacuation [of lower Manhattan].”
It is not enough to hold meetings behind closed doors, or issue a press release. “While mayor, I made it my policy to see with my own eyes the scene of every crisis so I could evaluate it first-hand.”
No less important is the establishment of a one-stop shop for survivors, friends and relatives. In practice, the Westway sports centre has performed this function since last Wednesday’s inferno. But this reflects the remarkable efforts of volunteers rather than coordination by the authorities.
The invisibility of Kensington and Chelsea council has been little short of scandalous. The visits of May and her colleagues have been badly handled, ineffective and twitchy. They have more closely resembled sallies into enemy territory than a campaign to reassure fellow citizens.
Second, this wholly avoidable calamity should force all on the centre-right to question core assumptions about best practice in government. If this government survives, it will press forward with the great repeal bill that transposes all EU legislation into domestic law. For the Tory right, this is an appetising opportunity to mount a deregulation carnival, on the basis that “red tape” is dragging the country to perdition. I wonder if this might be an opportune moment to reassess that approach.
Ditto the fixation with contracting out (a fixation, one might add, that was heartily endorsed by New Labour). There will always be services that are worth submitting to competitive tender. But the scandal of the disability assessments carried out by Atos and others – disclosed by the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman – was a terrible warning of the limits of outsourcing.
Though we must wait for the public inquiry to deliver its interim findings, it is already clear that the preferred bidder for the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was rejected to save £1.6 million. Such decisions are always subject to notional democratic oversight. But how meaningful was the scrutiny in this case?
Third, and most important: the Conservative party has contrived in the past week to appear emotionally bankrupt. This may be terribly unfair. There are few more genial and humane politicians at Westminster than the new first secretary of state, Damian Green. I have met May often enough to be fairly sure that she is, indeed, privately “distraught”.
But – to be candid – so what? Grief behind closed doors is irrelevant to the practice of modern statesmanship. Those Tories who sneer at words such as “empathy” and “emotional intelligence” (and you know who you are) only show that they have learned nothing in the 20 years since they so badly misjudged the reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
At the 1997 Conservative conference, Hague told his tribe that “compassion is not a bolt-on extra to Conservatism. It’s at its very core.” At the same gathering, the recently ousted Michael Portillo declared that “Tories were linked to harshness: thought to be uncaring about unemployment, poverty, poor housing, disability and single parenthood” and that this should not be dismissed “as mere false perception”.
In the intervening two decades, this school of conservatism has had its moments: most obviously when David Cameron became leader in 2005. But (it pains me to say) it has never truly lodged itself in the bone marrow of the party. When May first entered No 10, she, too, promised to represent the vulnerable, to “think not of the powerful, but you”. Where was that woman last week?
If the politics of the last year have a single lesson, it is that emotional connection is a precondition of success. In the past week, the Tories have looked as though they have what EM Forster called “an undeveloped heart”. Hammond insisted this morning that “we’re not deaf”. Well, then: act like it.