Elizabeth Windsor, the English queen, isn’t supposed to make political statements, but on June 16th she announced to the world that she thinks Tory Prime Minister Theresa May is a morally gutless coward and a useless leader writes Andy Stowe
Of course, she didn’t quite put it that way. Instead she met survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster face to face in public. May had gone the day before and the official line was that security concerns prevented her from meeting the bereaved and the homeless. The monarch was saying “I’m 91 years old, I’m not frightened and I know what the job is supposed to involve.”
Never before has a Tory leader been help in such open contempt by their own party, the press barons who helped get her elected and every mainstream political commentator. A BBC2 comedy show had the discussion topic “Theresa May has been given a strong mandate to f*** off”. The racist Tory propaganda sheet The Sun is saying that her own MPs are giving her ten days before they oust her. Tory commentator Michael Portillo is saying that she’s toast.
In under a week after adding 5.5% to her party’s share of the vote May has led her party into its most significant crisis of legitimacy in living memory. And the problem for the Tories is that there isn’t an easy way out.
The source of the Tories’ woes is the Labour election campaign which made austerity the defining question of the moment. Peter Hitchens, a maverick commentator in another racist Tory propaganda sheet, The Mail, sums up it readership’s malaise:
“The country is, fundamentally, run on the cheap. Cheap wages, borrowed money, skimped and half-finished schemes, leaky pipes, overloaded cables, inadequate training, rotten basic education, ancient infrastructure stretched to the limit and then beyond.
And much of it is controlled by unaccountable companies or bureaucracies that cannot be contacted, whose owners are often thousands of miles away.
Your late train (yet again), your moody broadband, your absent, invisible police force, your potholed road, your dodgy bank and your unreachable phone company, are all part of the same thing – a country living beyond its means that thinks it is richer and more important and more civilised than it is, and so neglects the basics of life while concentrating on how it looks.”
The tragedy at Grenfell Tower is the logical endpoint of a Tory project of ghettoising and stigmatising the poor, chopping 40% off council budgets, effectively ending the construction of social housing, reducing the time required for fire safety inspections from six hours to 45 minutes, scrimping a paltry £5000 to buy marginally cheaper cladding panels which seem to be the cause of the inferno which has claimed dozens of lives.
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has pioneered the retrenchment of public services and its 37 Tory councillors are unapologetically there to serve the interests of the borough with the richest electorate in Britain. They are a class war council and the deaths at Grenfell Tower are directly attributable to their ideological commitment to erode and outsource public services.
Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity programme means that they can’t get away with the customary handwringing anymore. Throughout the election campaign he hammered home the message that you don’t get a decent society with good quality public services on the cheap. That message is now conventional wisdom for many more millions of people than it was before the election. Everyone understands that if Kensington Council has fitted sprinklers and paid for fractionally more expensive cladding, more than 100 people would be alive today.
The Tories have no response to this, and while May deserves all the criticism for the callousness of her public response to the tragedy, her party’s problem is deeper.
The public response to the attacks at London Bridge and the Arianna Grande concert was much more in keeping with Jeremy Corbyn’s values than those of the Tories. It emphasised solidarity, community and a rejection of racism. The emergency services, a visible proof of the value of the public sector, were acclaimed as heroes. These are the people whose salaries have been frozen for a decade and whose jobs are often outsourced. Corbyn has said that will stop when a Labour government is returned.
And the response to Grenfell has taken this a step further. The tenants organisation has been pointing out the death trap they were consigned to live in for years – and were threatened with legal action for their pains. After the tragedy, thousands of volunteers of all faiths and none rallied to bring provisions and solace to the bereaved, the homeless and the distraught. Hundreds marched in solidarity across London, echoing the residents demands for answers.
Most of the print media is viciously pro-Tory. But it’s withering away and it’s not just that it’s losing readers. 50% of Sun readers don’t vote and much of the rest of the electorate is using social media to get its information about the world. Using it was a very deliberate strategy of a Labour leadership that knew the papers would trawl the bottom of every sewer to ruin them. It didn’t work.
And of course there was the election result. May went from anticipating a massive majority to being held hostage by the political wing of the Old Testament, the Democratic Unionist Party, and this just a couple of weeks before beginning Brexit negotiations.
Her party will get rid of her very soon, yet as Portillo observes, there isn’t anyone palatable with whom they can replace her. Ruth Davidson who has led their recovery in Scotland doesn’t have a Commons seat. They need to find someone who can give a fairly convincing impersonation of compassion while at the same time fighting the Powellite Brexiteers who now comprise much of their parliamentary group and doing a U turn on their commitment to austerity. That can’t be Johsnson, Gove, Hammond or Davies. The party’s big names are all too closely tied to everything that makes them toxic. They might have to look slightly wider and opt for the independently minded Anna Soubry to take up the poison chalice that is the Tory leadership.
May’s personal fate is irrelevant to everyone but her and her family. They’ll find someone else. She became Tory leader just at the moment when a new, self-confident Labour Party, finally won the argument against austerity. The tragedy is that over 100 people had to die in the most horrific way imaginable for the truth of our arguments against austerity to become irrefutable.