Iain Dale is Presenter of LBC Drive, Managing Director of Biteback Publishing, a columnist and broadcaster and a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate.
I write this on Thursday morning, as I’m watching Theresa May making a statement to the Commons on the Grenfell Fire tragedy. She may not emote in public, she may at times appear awkward, but listening to what she’s saying, and the way she’s saying it, I would challenge any Conservative MP to say that she’s not handling things properly.
She is juggling some huge issues at the moment: trying to do a deal with the DUP; Brexit; Grenfell Tower and reacting to terror attacks being just four. And she’s doing it with scant support from the Downing Street, where so many people have quit their jobs since the general election. In the last two days, John Godfrey, her Head of Policy and Chris Brannigan, Head of Government Relations, have both departed.
All these jobs are going to be difficult to fill – given the consensus that May is a Prime Minister who won’t be there much longer. She may not fight another election, but it would be madness for her either to quit or be toppled in the immediate future. Let her get on with the job, and let her Cabinet support her in these difficult times. If they don’t, they will be letting down their party and their country.
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Winston Churchill said “never let a good crisis go to waste”. It may seem brutal to quote him in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, but the truth is that you can tell a lot about a politician by the way he handles a crisis. Some sink. Some swim.
As I write this column, Nicholas Holgate, the Chief Executive of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, has quit his job. As well he might: the council’s response has been lamentable.
But it’s not just the officers who should be quitting – it’s the politicians. I hear from the sharp end how they have failed local people, and I do not understand how Nicholas Paget-Brown, the council’s leader is still clinging to power. On Monday, he did offer his resignation but, according to a pretentious statement he issued, it was “unanimously” refused by his fellow councillors.
Frankly, the whole lot of them should quit, for a whole host of reasons. It was clear almost from the start of this crisis that they weren’t capable of handling it. OK, you might say: but how on earth could anyone prepare for a tragedy like this?
Surely, though, every council has an emergency disaster plan. Surely it isn’t difficult to comprehend that, in the aftermath of a fire, in which more than a hundred families are rendered homeless, the council needs to have a strong and visible presence on the ground.
The most common complaint I have heard is that the council wasn’t there there – and that, if it was, councillors and officers haven’t been identifiable. (Presumably hi-vis vests are a no-no in Kensington.) Instead, the council kept saying “look at our website” or “phone this number”.
The trouble was that some of the surviving families hadn’t got phones. And even if they did manage to access a phone, and dial the number, it was either engaged or rang out. So people had to sleep out in the open for several days. The media was constantly highlighting this, but the council seemed incapable of action.
By Sunday morning, May decided to step in, and the Government told various council officers not to turn up for work, since it would take over. Almost at a stroke, things changed.
It shouldn’t have taken that long. If Sajid Javid had had his finger on the pulse of what had happening, he would have personally taken charge of the aftermath and marched down to the scene with twenty of his officials, set up a tent, and asked people: “What can we do, what do you need?” He could have made his reputation as a man of action who knew what to do. Instead, he, like everyone else, was paralysed.
The rumour is that he is on leadership manoeuvres, positioning himself to run if for whatever reason May quits. He, like all the others, needs to banish such thoughts from his mind. Many believe he only survived the Cabinet reshuffle by the skin of his teeth. His political reputation was in tatters anyway following, what many Brexiteers believe to be his careerist decision to back Remain rather than Leave.
Remember, he had a reputation as one of the biggest Eurosceptics in the cabinet at one point, but will have known that if he backed Leave, David Cameron would never have forgiven him. Instead, it was all those who had looked to him to take a lead who found it difficult to forgive what they saw as his opportunism.
You can tell a lot about the way politicians react during a crisis, and I’m afraid that Javid hasn’t covered himself in glory. He would do well, as May might say, to get on with his job and banish all thoughts of leading the Conservative Party from his mind. He’s got a reputation to rebuild, and the best way to do that is to excel at his job.
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Imagine that I was interviewing Boris Johnson a few hours after Emily Thornberry had appeared on my show in the election and had made a major gaffe. And imagine that, during his criticism of her, he had said: “Well, Iain, I thought she looked 15 years older.”
Now imagine the outcry that would then ensue from female Labour MPs. Well, on Tuesday I asked Thornberry about May’s Commons speech responding to the Queen’s Speech. (Thornberry had been sitting opposite her on the Opposition front bench.) And she said: “Well, Iain, I thought she looked fifteen years older”.
The Prime Minister is a Conservative, you see, -so she’s fair game. Brendan O’Neill got it absolutely write, when he wrote this on his Facebook page…
“So much as sneeze in front of Diane Abbott and you’re a racist misogynist. Raise the small matter of Hillary Clinton’s unleashing of mayhem in Libya and you’re a sexist pig. Challenge Stella Creasy’s support for bombing in Syria and you’re a foul troll who clearly can’t handle the idea of women doing politics. Wonder out loud if Julia Gillard was a naff PM and you’re a 1950s throwback in dire need of awareness-raising. But Theresa May – you can say anything you like about her. Unfeeling, uncaring, murderous, robotic, nasty, obsessed with fashion, with a gurning face perfect for piss-taking memes, her inability to emote proof she’s a bad leader, and a bad woman. It’s always nice to be reminded of what a partisan racket the new feminism is.”
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Talking of Johnson, I’m afraid that he is not being well served by some people who count themselves as his friends. The stories in last Sunday’s papers did Boris no favours: these briefings by his so-called ‘friends’ were designed to enhance his chances of taking over from May. They ended up having the opposite effect.
Do I believe that Boris wants to one day lead the Conservative Party? Yes, I do. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Do I believe that he is trying to manipulate events in his favour at the moment? No, I do not. I genuinely believe that he, like David Davis, is trying to make this sorry state of affairs work. Both of them have been backing the Prime Minister, and quite right, too.
That’s what the whole cabinet should be doing. No one, least of all the supporters of any potential future leaders, does their favoured person any favour by seeking to destabilise either May or one of their potential rivals. Johnson doesn’t want his friends to indulge in this behaviour. It’s self-indulgent political knackery, and it must stop.
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The BBC drama/documentary How May became Prime Minister was a peculiar piece of television. My partner kept asking me: “Well, who’s that supposed to be?” “No idea”, I invariably replied.
It wasn’t that it wasn’t entertaining – it was. But you were never sure what was true and what was a dramatization. The actress who played May had clearly never studied her. Her portrayal was more Thatcher than May. Similarly, with Andrea Leadsom. Ben Wallace appeared to have aged 20 years. The actor playing Michael Gove at least bore some passing resemblance to him, even if his character was wholly wrong. Jake Berry, who speaks with a slight Liverpool twang, suddenly became a cockney. These things matter.
Having spoken to one or two of the people involved, there were conversations and events that just did not happen. This is one of those TV dramas that you really look forward to watching, but that in the end give you a feeling of being rather let down. It could have been so much better.
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So far this year, I have taken one day off work, and even that was because I was taking part in a university panel on Brexit. For the last seven weeks, I’ve been working six days a week. I don’t mind admitting, I’m knackered.
So next week, I’ve got a week off. At last. I have rarely looked forward to a break more. I’m not going anywhere because going anywhere would involve doing things. I’m going to spend nine days in the quiet of the Norfolk countryside. The most active I might get is to get in the car and drive to Sea Palling beach to walk the dogs.
I’ll read, I’ll catch up on a few box sets like the latest Homeland and House of Cards, and constantly fall asleep without feeling at all guilty. I’m also going to try not to look at my laptop between 9am and 9pm. Obviously, we all know that I won’t stick to it, but it’s a laudable aim, isn’t it? But fear not, dear ConservativeHome readers: I’ll still be writing this column next week. It’s the least I can do!
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“How to run a LibDem raffle”. Yes, that is the title of the latest must-read blogpost by Mark Park, the Liberal Democrat blogger . I feel sure that a ConHome reader could write a Tory version. In fact, we probably all could. But taste prevents us from doing so…