Horror at the Grenfell Tower inferno has turned to anger and rightly so
As a clearer picture emerges of how such an avoidable, man-made disaster could have been allowed to happen, fundamental issues about the failure of government – not any particular government, but government in general – are staring us in the face. Meanwhile, the new government, elected only a week ago, gives every impression of being adrift. So where now?
On Thursday Theresa May ordered a full, public judicial inquiry into the disaster of Grenfell Tower, in part to ensure that it can never happen again. Some will say it is essential; others that is quite unnecessary. They make the point that we’ve had plenty of inquiries and coroners’ inquests in the past and they have told us most of what we need to know about how to stop it happening again. But nothing happens – so it doesn’t happen again. The scandal of Grenfell Tower is a scandal of ignored warnings, not least by residents. One MP said we should stop calling Grenfell Tower a tragedy because it is a crime.
Be that as it may, there is still plenty we need to learn. The government insists it will do everything that is needed, no matter what the cost, to protect the lives of those living in the four thousand other tower blocks in Britain. The time to judge it, and to ask broader questions about the failure of governments to fulfil their most basic obligation, to protect citizens, may be for later.
Now a more pressing question confronts us: is the current government even viable?
Theresa May’s loss of her parliamentary majority just a week ago, when she and virtually everyone else was expecting a Conservative landslide, was clearly an enormous shock. Her immediate reaction appeared to be a resolve to carry on almost as if nothing had happened. The tedious campaign mantra of ‘strong and stable’ was spouted again and we were told that a deal with the Tory Party’s ‘friends’ in the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland would be concluded swiftly, ensuring that the government would get its Queen Speech endorsed and its major legislation passed. We were told too that Brexit negotiations in the ‘hard’ terms the Prime Minister had earlier announced would proceed as planned.
Now, a week later, both are in doubt.
No deal (at least at the time of writing) has yet been clinched with the DUP. Although it is said there is broad agreement on delivering Brexit, securing the Union, fighting terrorism and spreading prosperity, there is still no final agreement. The DUP is renowned for being a tough negotiator (and why shouldn’t it be, in the interests of its own supporters?), and is holding out for cash. This is alarming the Treasury, not least for the implications any deal may have for the legitimate claims of other devolved governments in Scotland and Wales. The government has not even committed itself to publishing the detail of any deal done, adding suspicion to the whole process.
But even if a deal is struck, not everyone agrees that it is a good idea in principle. Sir John Major, the former Conservative prime minister who started the peace process in Northern Ireland that led to the Good Friday agreement of 1998, argued strongly that it should not be contemplated. The agreement requires the British and Irish governments to be honest brokers charged with impartially facilitating resolution of any conflicts that arise between members of the governing coalition in Belfast and that might jeopardise the whole process. This, Sir John and others argue, is impossible if the British government is beholden to the DUP, the lead party in any restored Belfast government, for its own very existence. It would be better, some argue, for Mrs May to seek no deal with the DUP, try to rule as a minority government and dare the DUP to topple it. That would inevitably result in a new election and the possibility of a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn, whom many in the DUP regard as a past supporter of the IRA.
As for Brexit, David Davis, the secretary of state for exiting the EU, will begin his negotiations with our EU partners as planned on Monday. But since the election there is some evidence of renewed disagreement within the government about what deal it should be seeking. The initial talks, concentrating on the rights of EU citizens continuing to live in Britain and of British citizens in EU countries, may prove fruitful because both sides broadly want the same thing. But it is the ultimate relationship that is once again a matter of controversy within the government.
The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, whom Mrs May is thought to have wanted to sack if she won the majority she expected, is making it clear he wants to ditch the ‘hard’ Brexit approach. That would make support for the economy and jobs rather than sovereignty and controlling immigration the chief criteria in the government’s position. He was due to make a speech to this effect on Thursday evening, but postponed it, ostensibly in response to the Grenfell Tower disaster. Some wonder whether the postponement had more to do with continuing fighting within the government.
The problem for the government, however, goes beyond its own internal divisions. Many observers believe that even if it agreed to stick to its initial ‘hard’ position, it couldn’t get any subsequent legislation through the House of Commons, because there are sufficient ‘soft’ Brexiteers (many former Remainers) on the Tory backbenches to block it. For this reason another former Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, has said that Mrs May needs to talk to other parties, notably the official Labour opposition, to agree a Brexit strategy that would have some hope of getting the backing of the Commons. So far she has shown not the slightest intention of doing so. As a result, many observers think she is driving her government’s Brexit strategy straight into a brick wall.
In short, then, it seems clear just a week after the election that the government cannot simply carry on as if nothing has happened. It will certainly be trimming its legislative programme, to be outlined in the Queen’s Speech next Wednesday, to take account of the new situation, but some think it will need to do much more. It will have to reach out, far beyond the DUP, to other parties or to MPs within those parties who might be sympathetic on specific issues, in order to govern.
The alternative is another election, probably in the autumn. Virtually unanimous opinion is that if that turns out to be the way forward, it will have to be preceded by an election for a new Conservative leader.
To many such an outcome would seem like too much politicking and not enough governing. So does it seem to you that the government is adrift to you? If so, which way forward would you favour?
Let us know what you think.