- Theresa May facing heavy criticism for failing to meet victims of the Grenfell Tower Fire.
- May declined to meet those affected on Thursday because of “security concerns.”
- Both Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the Queen have spoken to victims on the ground.
- May’s ratings have plummeted since losing her majority in the general election.
LONDON — The biggest test of any prime minister is how they represent the country in times of crisis and grief. In her response to the Grenfell Tower fire, Theresa May is failing that test.
Her botched private visit to the scene of the fire, in which she failed to meet any residents, reportedly because of “security fears” caused huge anger among those affected, as did her subsequent media interviews in which she failed to even acknowledge the anger that had been caused.
Pictures of the PM at the scene, taken from a distance, helped crystallise what is fast becoming a settled view of the PM as a cold and distant figure out of touch with the public she represents.
The contrast with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who spent a long time yesterday speaking, hugging and listening to those affected by the fire could not have been greater. The arrival of the Queen at the scene, where she spent some 45 minutes talking to those affected, also blew away any remaining excuses for May’s absence.
With more junior ministers sent out to take the flak, the PM today met with victims of the fire inside hospital during another apparently private visit. It was too late. The damage had been done.
An event like the Grenfell fire would be potentially damaging for any prime minister. The combination of tragedy and political and regulatory failure would be tricky for any politician to navigate. Yet May’s response has been so bad as to seriously threaten her continued premiership. Like US president George Bush, whose response to Hurricaine Katrina came to define the beginning 0f the end of his presidency, May’s performance this week now risks doing the same.
The moments that spell the beginning of the end of a prime minister are normally only seen in hindsight. For the former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, it was his decision not to call an early election in 2007 when polls suggested he could easily beat the then Conservative leader David Cameron. From that moment on public perceptions of Brown nosedived and never recovered.
His authority, long held as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Tony Blair, evaporated and his days in power were soon numbered. Once lauded in the press as “the Iron Chancellor” Brown suddenly became the man who could do no right. Every story about Brown’s premiership became one about his personal awkwardness, his failed ambition, or his political miscalculations.
Something very similar is happening now to Theresa May.
Her failed attempt to increase the government’s majority led to her being described as a “dead woman walking” by her former colleague George Osborne. That description now looks set to stick.
A poll conducted before the Grenfell fire found that May’s ratings are now almost as bad as Corbyn’s were before the start of the campaign, with Corbyn’s now almost as good as May’s were at the time. Public perceptions of the two leaders have flipped. After the events of the past few days those perceptions are only likely to harden.
We don’t yet know how long May wil remain as prime minister. Perhaps a hung parliament deal with the DUP will be enough to cement her place in government for the time being or perhaps it won’t. But if she is forced out of Downing Street soon, we will look back at this week as the moment her authority first began to fade away.
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