Have the Tories learned noth­ing about com­pas­sion? Matthew d’An­cona

The re­sponse to a na­tional tragedy rep­re­sents a far more se­ri­ous chal­lenge than the elec­tion re­sult

The Guardian - - JOURNAL OPINION -

Philip Ham­mond’s tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ances yes­ter­day 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% 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 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. 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 cen­treright 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 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. There will al­ways be ser­vices that are worth sub­mit­ting to com­pet­i­tive ten­der. But the scan­dal of the dis­abil­ity as­sess­ments car­ried out by Atos 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 £1.6m. 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 the Tories had been “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 yes­ter­day that “we’re not deaf”. Well, then: act like it.

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