Euan McColm: UK leader must inspire confidence, not contempt

Prime Minister Theresa May spoke to fire services chiefs at Grenfell Tower on Thursday, but avoided residents. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Prime Minister Theresa May spoke to fire services chiefs at Grenfell Tower on Thursday, but avoided residents. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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It was the final straw, a moment of such monumentally poor judgment that it beggared belief.

When Theresa May visited the scene of the Grenfell Tower disaster in Kensington on Thursday, she did so as public anger over what will surely turn out to be many dozens of deaths grew stronger. This being so, the Prime Minister had an important duty to perform.

Her failure to perform it confirms her unfitness for the office she holds. At a time when survivors needed answers and the reassurance that what they experienced truly matters and will have consequences, May failed to provide any of that. Her decision not to meet those bereaved and homeless after fire gripped the tower block was unforgivable. It should haunt her for what must be a very short career in high office.

The Prime Minister’s allies have variously spun that there were security issues and that May did not want to distract from vital ongoing work. Let’s call bullshit on all of that. There was nothing to stop May reaching out to people at this critical moment. She failed to do so because she is simply not equipped to be Prime Minister.

Can you imagine, in the aftermath of a similar tragedy in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon hiding away from those most deeply affected? Of course you can’t. Nor can you imagine Scottish Conservative Party leader, Ruth Davidson, doing the same.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan, an increasingly impressive figure, did what the Prime Minister failed to and met survivors and angry local residents. With, it must be said, great composure and dignity, he absorbed angry barbs.

And, after permitting members of the crowd to vent their frustrations upon him, Khan paid due respect to their righteous anger. He was angry, too, and there would be answers.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also did the decent thing and met residents. Cynics be damned on this: Corbyn did precisely what was right, regardless of any political benefit he might have gained by behaving like a normal human being rather than a sentient laptop in kitten heels

May eventually met survivors on Friday, but when the country – this, after all, is a national tragedy – needed the Prime Minister she did not step up.

It was too little, too late. By Friday evening there were protestors outside Downing Street demanding the resignation of this wretched PM.

The Prime Minister’s lack both of leadership and empathy on Thursday was difficult to comprehend. It was as if she genuinely had no idea what the job to which she is clinging actually entails.

Those who died in Grenfell Tower were among the poorest people in one of the richest boroughs in London. Concerns about their safety had been ignored before the disaster. Afterwards, the Prime Minister would not hear their voices. Demands for people in politics to feel shame are thrown about like lunch-boxes in playgrounds but, in this instance, the Prime Minister should hang her head.

Once, Theresa May warned her colleagues that they were seen as the “nasty party”, now she appears to embody that version of the Tories.

Lazy complaints about politics being too heavily dependent on image-building and spin miss the importance of these things. How a Prime Minister behaves during a time of crisis – the image they project – is vital.

Back in the summer of 2005, Tony Blair was losing his grip on power. Allies of Gordon Brown had begun manoeuvring, ready to launch a leadership bid if the Prime Minister refused to step down. And then, on 7 July, while Blair was hosting the G8 Summit at Gleneagles, terrorists killed dozens in suicide bomb attacks in London.

The nation was in shock; what was needed was calm reassurance. The provision of this was something at which Blair excelled. His defiant and dignified response, standing in front of other word leaders, was note perfect. It was what the country – and the rest of the world – needed at that moment. Blair’s handling of this crisis had the effect of strengthening his premiership and allowing him to dictate his departure from office on his own terms.

Leadership is not just about decisions, it’s about connecting with people. It seems farcical to have to reassert that but if even the Prime Minister doesn’t get it…

May, stiff and awkward and seemingly terrified of coming face-to-face with voters, simply no longer inspires confidence and that makes her less than useless in difficult times.

If May’s response to the Grenfell Tower disaster erases any last doubts that she is not Prime Ministerial material, there has been previously been compelling evidence: May’s decision to call a snap general election in order to boost her commons majority only to loosen the grip she has on the House of Commons was an especially strong exhibit.

Then there was that lack of Prime Ministerial leadership last weekend on the issue of Brexit. May had called the election, ostensibly, to strengthen her parliamentary majority before entering negotiations over the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, yet she was silent on what shape Brexit might now take.

Instead, Ruth Davidson filled that news vacuum, outlining her preference for the softer variety and for co-operation between parties. Davidson has, in spades, the qualities required for leadership which May so severely lacks.

Before the Grenfell Tower disaster, May’s grip on power was critically weakened. Plots to replace her had been hatched within minutes of the exit poll suggesting the Tories were headed for a minority. Senior figures began muttering about the inevitability of her swift departure from 10 Downing Street.

The May camp hit back, spinning that despite the disappointment of the general election, she was best placed to see Brexit through, nobody needed a destabilising leadership election.

The country needs that leadership election, right now. The Conservative Party must oblige.

A bruised and divided United Kingdom needs a Prime Minister who can inspire confidence. Increasingly, Theresa May inspires contempt.

Leader: Page 6