Who would want to be a political leader in the wake of a disaster such as that of Grenfell Tower? If you show up and hug the victims you run the risk of being accused of opportunism and obstructing the emergency services in their work; if you stay away from the site you will be accused of callousness – even if you are spending your time working on the practical issues relating to the event.
But there is a very strong emerging narrative: that Jeremy Corbyn got it right by turning up and sharing the grief of the victims, and that Theresa May got it horribly wrong by restricting her visit to contact with the emergency services. That she has done the right thing in ordering a full public inquiry has counted for little. To many, her attitude fits a pattern – exposed in the general election campaign – of a cold, robotic leader who lacks the empathy to be Prime Minister. Corbyn, by contrast, seems to be able to do no wrong. He seems to have been greeted with a warm reception – while Sadiq Khan had things thrown at him when he arrived for a similar meet-the-people visit.
The Corbyn phenomenon has spread throughout the country so rapidly that one wonders if it could go pop equally quickly. He may already have overplayed his hand – in trying to turn the tragedy into a morality play about rich and poor. Calling for properties of absentee property owners to be requisitioned in order to rehouse survivors of the fire he declared yesterday: ‘It is hardly acceptable that in London you have luxury buildings and luxury flats kept empty, as land banks for the future, while the homeless and the poor look for somewhere to live,’ he said. He went on that the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is a ‘tale of two cities’ – with a wealthy south and a rich north, as if this were a damning indictment of our society.
Many – conservatives included – will share Corbyn’s anger at properties left empty by absentee landlords. I share it too. Four years ago, I wrote a book drawing attention to the problem and recommending a solution: that most new properties built in London have written into their deeds a restrictive covenant saying they can only be used as main residences, not as pied a terres or occasionally-visited holiday homes. Corbyn is very welcome to borrow the idea for his next manifesto should he want to.
But to bring up this issue in the wake of a tragedy like that of Grenfell Tower? This disaster was not caused by absentee property-owners, not even through the wildest imagination. What is causing anger, and will have to be examined in great detail in the public inquiry, is the possible role of the cladding, the lack of a sprinkler system, the lack of a fire escape and the appalling advice for people to stay in their flats and wait to be rescued.
As for Corbyn’s jibe about Kensington being a tale of two cities, surely it is good thing that we have rich and poor living in close proximity. Kensington and Chelsea could very easily be turned into a tale of one city – by allowing economic forces to turn it into borough inhabited exclusively by the wealthy. The policy of right-to-buy – which, as I have written here before, should have been abandoned years ago – has indeed gone some way to bringing about this process. But even so, here was a block inhabited by people of modest means, some of them refugees from other countries, who were housed, in accommodation newly-refurbished at a cost of £9 million (which equates to £75,000 per flat), in the middle of one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods on Earth. And before anyone tries to make something of the gap between north and south Kensington, Grenfell Tower is in fact on the ‘right’ side of the Westway – unlike David Cameron’s house, which lies a few streets to the north and is often described as a haven for toffs.
Trying to turn the tragedy into morality tale about rich and poor just stinks. Residents of Grenfell Tower have died not because they are poor but because the renovations were wrong-headed. Too much was spent on the aesthetic appearance of the block, inside and out, and tragically too little thought was put into fire safety. That is the real scandal.