Theresa May visited victims of the Grenfell Tower blaze in a west London hospital on Friday, after being criticised for failing to meet residents of the block earlier.
Opinion by Polly Toynbee:
Symbolism is everything in politics and nothing better signifies the austerity of May-Cameron-Osborne era than North Kensington’s ghastly tomb
That tomb in the sky will be forever Theresa May’s monument. Grenfell marks the spot and her visit marks the moment the last vestiges of her career were finally rubbed out. She made it her own yesterday by that fateful “visit” to a handful of senior fire officers, guarding her from any contaminating contact with the bereaved and newly homeless. Dead to emotion or empathy, she sealed her fate.
Precise blame comes later in the public inquiry: we are all overnight experts in cladding and sprinklers now. But political blame spreads right through the Conservative party, with no escape on offer. This goes far beyond the precise shockers – the Tory MPs who mockingly rejected housing regulation; the cuts to funding to councils responsible for retro-fitting fire suppressants; the disregard of coroner’s instructions after the 2009 Lakanal House tragedy; and even the plan to opt out of EU safety regulations. Conservative Kensington and Chelsea council allegedly blocking its ears to tenants’ well-founded anxiety is just the immediate scandal. But this event reaches far deeper, to the very sinews of its party’s policy.
That tower is austerity in ruins. Symbolism is everything in politics and nothing better signifies the May-Cameron-Osborne era that stripped bare the state and its social and physical protection of citizens. The horror of poor people burned alive within feet of the country’s grandest mansions, many of them empty, moth-balled investments, perfectly captures the politics of the last seven years. The Cameron, Osborne, Gove Notting Hill set live just up the road.
From the 40% cuts to local councils, to the bedroom tax and the housing benefit cap banishing people hundreds of miles from family and schools, the people spilling out on to the street, sheltered by churches and mosques, are the unwilling emblems of deliberate Conservative attacks. Just remember how personally people have been abused by George Osborne – those idlers with the blinds down while hard workers set off at dawn. Or Iain Duncan Smith’s: “This is not an easy life any more, chum.” Together with their poisonous press, they hardened public hearts against those struggling and working hard on low incomes: how else could they make this April’s £12bn benefit cuts politically palatable? Here’s the moment public hearts soften and the idea of social security regains its meaning.
The government needs to pay the private rents to rehouse all these families locally. I know of at least one block of luxury flats in Kensington with the lights out permanently in most of them: the council should requisition the housing it needs, with plenty available. What of rehousing all the other tower block residents now horrified to find their homes too are potential fire-traps?
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