How Brexit has shifted our focus from serious issues like Grenfell tragedy – Christine Jardine

Seventy-two people died when a fire swept through the 27-storey Grenfell Tower in London (Picture: SWNS)
Seventy-two people died when a fire swept through the 27-storey Grenfell Tower in London (Picture: SWNS)
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Pre-occupied by Brexit, the UK has not given enough attention to serious problems like the deadly Grenfell Tower fire and climate change, writes Christine Jardine.

There was moment during the week which seemed to throw the past two-and-a-half years into sharp relief.

El Alami Hamdan, who lost his son-in-law and two grandchildren, wipes the tears as relatives of those who died in the Grenfell Tower fire hold an emotional press conference following the release of findings from phase one of the Grenfell Tower inquiry (Picture: Peter Summers/Getty Images)

El Alami Hamdan, who lost his son-in-law and two grandchildren, wipes the tears as relatives of those who died in the Grenfell Tower fire hold an emotional press conference following the release of findings from phase one of the Grenfell Tower inquiry (Picture: Peter Summers/Getty Images)

Immediately after the 2017 general election, the country had been shocked at a horrific fire which seemed to many of us to epitomise some of our deepest fears.

And as we prepare to go to the polls again, the issues surrounding it have re-emerged.

I had been an MP for less than a week when I got back to my hotel room in Westminster to discover the TV coverage of the inferno that was Grenfell Tower.

It was one of the first events to bring my private and political lives together.

As a newly elected MP I sat and watched in horror as lives were being destroyed just a few miles away. I could almost see it from the hotel window.

This week, in one of the last debates I attended in this parliament, as we discussed the implications of the inquiry, I was reminded of how many important issues have been dwarfed by Brexit.

Too often the issues with direct impact on people’s lives have had to play second fiddle to sorting out the chaos that engulfed us all when David Cameron chose to try to settle internal Tory differences by sacrificing the national interest. And Grenfell is one of the worst examples.

READ MORE: Grenfell Tower fire: Fire brigade criticised for ‘systemic’ failings in report

READ MORE: Grenfell report finds the ‘stay put’ strategy for burning tower was futile

On Wednesday, June 14, 2017, a fire broke out in the kitchen of flat 16 Grenfell Tower in North Kensington.

The 1970s construction seemed to offer no protection as it raged through the block.

Although the initial fire was dealt with by the fire officers, it had already escaped into the cladding where it became a nightmare of a different sort.

It took only 20 minutes for the flames to reach the top corner of the building.

By the time it was completely doused and the site secured, 71 people had lost their lives. The 227 who had managed to escape the inferno were homeless. Some had lost loved ones.

Lack of attention

In normal times that wold have been just the beginning of the story. We would have had weeks of coverage, months of updates and examinations of how it had happened and how to prevent a repetition.

To some extent, initially at least, we did. The recently completed replacement cladding was the main source of a concern that prompted councils all over the country to examine their own housing stock.

And yes, there were many column inches and newspaper reports about the housing problems and planning failings.

But somehow I cannot help but feel that the victims, the survivors, and the emergency services who are all now reliving the trauma through the inquiry and its findings, have not had public attention they should have. Compassion was the word my colleague Sam Gyimah used. He was right.

But sadly I do not believe they are the only ones. Since June 2016 it has felt that the nation, both collectively and individually, has become increasingly entagled in the web of uncertainties and contradictions that is Brexit.

It has taken up every morsel of our attention, sapped our energy and undermined our ability to tackle any other major issues.

Grenfell is not the only issue to have received less attention than it deserved, or found itself wrapped into the Brexit argument.

Climate change is both the biggest single issue affecting the planet and a major source of fear and disenchantment for an entire generation.

The recently staged protests seemed to garner less attention for the actual issue than it did for the disruption allegedly caused by their presence.

And what will Brexit do to our ability to work with our European partners to achieve our zero-carbon emissions targets?

Division and discontent

The Salisbury poisonings did of course receive massive attention but again Brexit muscled into the limelight with discussions of whether the loss of the European arrest warrant and cross-continent co-operation would make such cases more difficult.

Everywhere we turned for the past three years it has been there, at the centre of everything and achieving nothing. Nothing, except that is for division, disruption and discontent.

As a politician, it has often felt like trying to tackle every problem with a massive weight on your shoulders.

At every turn, there was a Brexit problem or blockage to be dealt with.

Sitting on the green benches this week, listening to Sam Gyimah complete the contributions to the Grenfell debate, I was overcome with a sense of loss, both for those whose lives had been cut short and for our ability to give those left behind the attention they deserved.

But I was also angry. Angry that this unequalled act of self-harm has monopolised the attention of a parliament that could have achieved so much. Could have tacked the problems of the deeply flawed universal credit system. Could have made major inroads into tackling climate change. Or could have begun to tackle problems in the NHS, education, our defences.

The list is endless.

I hope when we return after this general election we can put the past three years behind us, begin to repair our broken political system, and start working for a brighter future.

We owe it to the victims of Grenfell.