Theresa May and the Tories are in Freefall

Photo by Matt Brown | CC BY 2.0

The UK has some of the highest levels of hunger and deprivation among the world’s richest nations, according to a wide-ranging United Nations assessment of child health and wellbeing.

— The Guardian

For anyone with a long and abiding hatred of the UK’s Conservative party, these are heady days indeed.  I turn on my laptop each morning with eager anticipation, as it becomes increasingly obvious that things only get worse for the Tories with each passing day.

The Tories have been in a freefall since Theresa May, enjoying a 20-point lead in the opinion polls, called a snap election in the hope– now doused with the equivalent of freshly melted water from an Arctic iceberg– of extending her party’s majority in parliament to historically unprecedented heights.  Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn, was expected to suffer a defeat so bad that its chances of being hammered into non-survivable oblivion were rated as pretty good by its own (so-called) supporters.

Within days of May calling the election, however, the opinion polls started to tilt in Labour’s favour, and they stayed that way until election day.  Corbyn, derided in the rightwing tabloids as an out of touch commie cultist, came across on the campaign trail as an undogmatic but principled figure with bucket loads of the so-called common touch.  Nothing seemed to fluster him.

May, by contrast, despite being uniformly portrayed by same tabloids as a level-headed realist attuned to the sensitivities of John and Jane Bull, turned out to be an unmitigated dud on the hustings.

Aloof, nervy, unspontaneous, and completely unable to avoid the clammy grip of clichés and slogans devised by her uninspired PR hacks (her two chiefs of staff were shown the door the day after the results were announced), a series of disastrous public appearances soon restricted May to invitation-only events before party loyalists and a bus-load or two of “rent a crowd” types, who, if so instructed and paid accordingly, would cheer to the roof anything that had a faint pulse and twitched occasionally.

Despite being extricated by her handlers from the hurly-burly of the hustings, May still seemed up to her neck in a quicksand.  She was unerring in meeting her daily quota of gaffes and U-turns, and to make the lethargic Jeb Bush look like Bruce Springsteen playing to a fired-up crowd at Madison Square Gardens.  May in public is decidedly “low energy”.

The chameleon-like May has no deeply held convictions, except for her entitlement to rule– everything she did was motivated by an unconcealed desire to remain in power.  Recent testimony to this is provided by her shifting positions on Brexit.

Leading up to the Brexit referendum May campaigned for the Remain bloc.  Once the Leave bloc prevailed in the referendum, she fought the general election by stealing the clothes of the far-right UKIP, and campaigned for a hard Brexit.  She lost her parliamentary majority in the election, and is now in favour of a soft Brexit.  All bets are off on whether she will return to her original Remain position once negotiations begin with the EU.

Electorates typically impose on themselves the largely pointless expectation that candidates will somehow look as though they are in the game for more than just the prospect of overstuffed parliamentary expense accounts and ministerial limousines, of giving at least a damn for the people who vote.

Corbyn more than established his credentials on the “giving a damn” meter straightaway, whereas with each misstep May seemed to stand for nothing but the prospect of having yet another trough placed in front of her and her multimillionaire financier husband (May’s forte when she was home secretary/interior minister was to award contracts to a firm running prisons in which Philip May had a significant financial stake).

Her real priorities are displayed in a Huffington Post report highlighting the contrast between her 15-minute visit to the site of the huge fire that destroyed the high-rise Grenfell Tower in London and the 50-minute schmooze fest she had at the glitzy Savoy hotel with multimillionaire bankers who donate to the Conservative Party.

The menu at the Savoy bash included truffles, slow-roasted salt marsh rump of lamb, mango pie with Italian meringue and exotic jelly, and a tropical fruit sorbet, washed down with a Brook Ridge Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2016 and Casa Silva Coleccion Merlot 2014.

Admittedly, my problem is not people, even the scummy Tories, having nice grub like this, but rather, that the Conservative scumbags want this only for themselves and their ilk.  Like my model Nye Bevan, I believe everyone should have such delicacies if this is their wish.

If May was already on the skids in the aftermath of the election, the Grenfell Tower fire spun her and her party to the edge of a political precipice.

As Patrick Cockburn pointed out in CounterPunch, the fire was May’s Hurricane Katrina moment.

Dubya Bush’s ham-fisted handling of the relief operation in New Orleans, marked by the “disaster porn” moment when he flew high above the ravaged city in Air Force One to take a cursory look at the floods on his way back from one of his frequent holidays at his Texas dude ranch, and by his appointment of the unqualified crony “Heckuva job Brownie” Michael D Brown to be the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, among other failures, had uncanny parallels with May’s equally botched handling of the London fire.

May refused at first to meet survivors when she visited the site of the disaster before changing her mind and meeting with them the following day after a storm of public criticism.  This delay only added to the ire of the survivors.

May also appointed as her new chief of staff the former housing minister Gavin Barwell after he lost his seat in the recent election– as housing minister Barwell shelved a review of building regulations at tower blocks after a deadly fire at Lakanal House in south London in 2009, which claimed six lives.

May’s grossly deficient response to the disaster aside (which is not to suggest it should be overlooked), the grim fact of the matter is that the Tories have never accepted wholeheartedly any justification for the existence of social housing.

In Tory eyes, housing is not a social good, and should instead be sold or rented purely as a commodity, as indeed must nearly everything apart from the armed forces (a highly dubious social good, given that they were last deployed by the UK purely for defence in World War 2) and the royal palaces (most definitely not a social good since they are owned and occupied by one of the world’s richest families while being paid for by the taxpayer).

It is no surprise, therefore, that (according to The Independent) the number of new state-funded houses constructed for social rent has plunged by 97% since the Tories took office in 2010.  According to the same newspaper, homelessness has increased by 34% since 2010.

As the Tories see it, education, health, law enforcement and the prison system, utilities, transport, broadcasting, and nursery care, must all be farmed-out to the profit-hungry private sector insofar as this is feasible.  Grenfell Tower was no exception.

Grenfell Tower was owned by the Kensington and Chelsea Council, the wealthiest local council in the UK.  KCC currently has reserves of £270m/$340m, which makes it puzzling why shortcuts, some seemingly illegal, were taken in the building’s recent major refurbishment.  Of course, the outcome of the official inquiry will have to be awaited before we have definitive answers to this and other questions regarding the shortcomings of the building’s management and the failed recovery services in the fire’s immediate aftermath.

So far, we know that the Conservative-led KCC had outsourced the running of Grenfell Tower to a private management company, that the building had no fire alarms and sprinklers, and that flammable cladding (banned in the UK for taller buildings) had been installed during the refurbishment.

The Guardian reports that the KCC’s building inspectors had inspected the renovation work at Grenfell Tower on 16 occasions but still failed to notice that flammable cladding banned in the UK was being used by Rydon, the construction company entrusted with the refurbishment.

The BBC now says that 11 other high-rise buildings in 8 boroughs have been found to have combustible cladding, with numerous other emergency inspections still to be completed.

The context for all the above has been the devastation of local government in the UK since the Thatcherite 1980s.

During this period, local authorities have endured round after round of financial cutbacks, hundreds of thousands of job losses, and an unparalleled truncation of their operations.

The dramatic scaling-down of local government meant there were few or no resources for the oversight of outsourcing arrangements– recipients of outsourcing contracts were given a virtual free hand by local councils who had done away with adequate inspection regimens, so eager were they to free themselves from the responsibility of being accountable to those who lived in their boroughs.

All this was done in the name of the ideology of the “small” state, adhered to over the course of the last four decades by the Tories and New Labour alike.  The poor were a burden to this “small” state, for whom they were “useless eaters” (a term coined by the Nazis, but pretty explicit in the present-day mouthings of neoliberal politicians on both sides of the Atlantic).

According to this pernicious ideology, “useless eaters” consume ostensibly scarce resources that could be better utilized if only they were given to the already wealthy.  The quotation at the top of this article highlights the consequence of the Tories’ callousness: “the UK has some of the highest levels of hunger and deprivation among the world’s richest nations”.

The poor have been cast adrift in Tory UK, to live on the streets or in inadequate social housing, and to rely in increasing numbers on food banks for survival.  We are not talking here of the largely mythical “scroungers” and “shirkers” demonized by the rightwing media– 60% of the UK’s poor belong to working families.

In Tory UK having a job certainly does not guarantee you will be able to live above the poverty line.

The poor have thus been neglected in a plethora of ways.  Tory legislation forces borough councils to sell-off high value social housing when a tenancy ends.  The quantity and quality of social housing has declined as a result.  Brutal cost-cutting masquerades as “efficiency”.

The same “efficiency” decrees that everything be done as cheaply as possible.  The lowest bidder invariably prevails in any contracting out, even though what the bidder in question undertakes to provide is manifestly inferior in relation to some of the more expensive bids submitted by rival companies.

According to The Guardian, a KCC contracting-out of home to school bus services for severely disabled children turned out to be a nearly disastrous fiasco because KCC officials had awarded the contract to the cheapest bidder, using “contract evaluation criteria weighted 70% for price and 30% for quality”.

It should have been easy in principle for the UK’s richest borough to reverse the figures in this weighting to, say, 70% for quality and 30% for price, thereby avoiding the potentially disastrous outcomes stemming from doing things on the cheap regardless of consequences.

Alas, no such minimal prudence is enjoined by the heartless cost-cutting Tory obsession that is the apotheosis of neoliberal ideology.

Hopefully, the freefall of the hyper-verminous Tories will accelerate even further when such details become more widely available to the British public.

Corbyn has now overtaken the arch-bungler May for the first time in a poll asking who would make the best prime minister.


Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.