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Grenfell Tower: Theresa May’s Katrina Moment

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.

Despite all May’s supposed concern for the mentally ill, something she presents as a sort of signature policy, her accomplishments are small. Criminalisation of mental illness has continued relentlessly and the number of beds available to mental patients is now 17,000. This is well below the number of mentally ill people who are in prison – 21,000, a quarter of the prison population.

Most of these miseries are suffered in silence by deprived people unable to defend themselves. Injustices may evoke concern, but there is little pressure for action because most people are not affected. This is very different from the Grenfell Tower disaster, visually overwhelming even as a burned-out hulk, as were the shattered towers of the World Trade Centre on 9/11. Everything about the disaster conveys a sense of total failure in which the whole political system is implicated.

Natural and man-made disasters have frequently been the last nail in the coffin of governments that were already tottering. There was the Tangshan earthquake in China in 1976, which helped determine who would rule the country after Mao Zedong. The Rex Cinema fire in Abadan in Iran in 1978 was blamed on the Shah and helped end his reign. The failure of President Bashar al-Assad to do anything for the two or three million Syrians who fled to the cities to escape the four-year-long drought in 2006-10 helped to cause the uprising the following year.

But commentators are probably right in seeing the closest parallel to the burning of the Grenfell Tower as being the devastating floods in New Orleans 12 years ago when Hurricane Katrina sent a 9m-high surge of water into the city on 29 August 2005 that led to the death of 1,464 people. The disaster had been repeatedly predicted by experts, but nothing effective was done so the levees and flood walls were too low or too weak or had been built out of clay that rapidly disintegrated under the impact of the rising water. The victims were mostly poor African Americans without the influence to get adequate flood defences.

As New Orleans was being engulfed, President George W Bush was on an extended holiday at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he remained for several days. He finally flew back to Washington on 31 August, his plane making a detour over the stricken city. It was a picture of him looking distant and disengaged as he viewed the wreckage of New Orleans that destroyed his reputation forever.

It is curious that Theresa May should make much the same mistake as Bush by not meeting survivors in Kensington while appearing cold and uninterested. Even the photo editors have turned against her and mostly chose to contrast her chilly appearance with a cuddly looking Jeremy Corbyn comforting a victim. She appears to be somebody who cannot handle pressure, which makes it look particularly odd of her and her advisers to have sought to win re-election as the unshakeable national leader. Corbyn, on the contrary, seems to thrive on crisis and adversity.

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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