Natural and man-made disasters have frequently been the last nail in the coffin of governments that were already tottering
It is a dangerous moment for any government when the public suspects that it is incapable of preventing a great disaster like the Grenfell Tower fire. Angry people see the state as failing in its basic duty to keep them safe. Politicians in power, in such circumstances, are embarrassingly keen to show that there is a firm hand on the tiller, calmly coping with a crisis for which they are not to blame. Above all else, they need to dissuade people from imagining that a calamity is a symptom that something is rotten in the state of Britain.
Whatever the real culpability, it is vital to play for time in the expectation that the news agenda will ultimately move on. The old PR adage holds that the accused should first say “no story” or, in other words, deny all guilt until the media has lost interest and they can safely say “old story”.
This ploy is usually effective but is difficult in the present case. The mistakes that led to the inferno in Kensington are so blatant, undeniable and easy to establish that the Government looks evasive as it pretends that long enquiries are necessary to establish what went wrong.
It is already known that the cladding that encased the tower was inflammable and led to the building igniting like a torch within 15 minutes. It is likewise established that this material is banned in buildings of any height in the US because it poses a fire risk and that it was chosen in preference to fire-resistant cladding because it was cheaper. A sprinkler system, which would have suppressed the original blaze before it spread, was never installed because it would have cost a small amount of money. The Government is quoted, in words that it may come to regret, as saying that “it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire-sprinkling systems effectively”.
What I find so shocking and disgusting is the way in which the Government has deregulated the building industry with the excuse that it is “cutting red tape”, while at the same time it is strangling the weakest, poorest and most vulnerable people with “red tape” in order to deprive them of meagre benefits they receive from the state. Compare the enthusiasm of successive governments to increase regulations for claimants in the name of austerity with their laggard performance when it comes to protecting the public.
Just as ministers were trying to explain their snail-like progress in putting in place basic rules to stop tower blocks burning down, I spoke to a charity worker about the hideous maze of regulations facing those in most need. People with mental health problems must fill in labyrinthine forms, something which, by the nature of their disability, they cannot do. Once upon a time, an experienced social worker would have helped them, but their numbers have been slashed. The charity worker, who wanted to stay anonymous, said that often the red tape was so complicated that “mental patients give up in despair and do without the benefits which should be theirs by right”.
It is not only the mentally ill who fall victim to these regulatory booby traps. Another example is families who are about to be evicted and become homeless. The charity worker said: “I always tell them that they must stay in the house until the bailiffs begin to break the door down. This is because, if they leave even a few hours before the bailiffs arrive, the council may deem them to be ‘intentionally’ homeless and refuse to do anything for them.”
The Government is clearly frightened that the burned bodies in Grenfell Towers will be seen as martyrs who died because of austerity, deregulation and outsourcing. It is not as if Theresa May does not know about social wrongs and her speeches often contain eloquent descriptions of the miseries facing the mentally ill. But her proposals smell of political opportunism, primarily geared to attracting media attention and usually ending up as an expression of good intentions with nothing concrete happening.