Chris Burn: Theresa May should have run into arms of Grenfell Tower victims rather than away from them

Theresa May at the scene of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. She met the emergency services, but not victims.
Theresa May at the scene of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. She met the emergency services, but not victims.
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AS the death toll from Grenfell Tower grows and the heartbreaking individual stories of those who lost their lives in the most horrific way are told, as the evidence increasingly emerges of an avoidable national scandal, the long-lens shot of Theresa May’s private meeting with emergency services officials instead of distraught local residents is fast becoming the defining image of her increasingly-troubled premiership.

It stood in utterly stark contrast to Jeremy Corbyn hugging a worried resident and brings to mind the infamous picture of Margaret Thatcher on the Hillsborough terraces the day after the 1989 disaster in which she was surrounded by police officers, but there was not a fan or bereaved family member in sight.

The excuse that has been given is one of ‘security concerns’, but it would surely have been possible for Mrs May to have met at least some local residents or family members of the missing at the same time as her discussions with the emergency services. The Queen, 91, managed to do so.

The reputational damage was already done by the time the Prime Minister arrived at the nearby St Clements Church at teatime yesterday after meeting victims in hospital earlier in the day. As an angry crowd gathered outside the church waiting to see Mrs May, one woman told reporters: “I want her to come out here and face us. What are you doing here on Friday? I lost my home on Tuesday, people lost their lives on Tuesday.”

The extent of the miscalculation was shown as an angry local resident confronted Commons leader Andrea Leadsom earlier in the day about Mrs May’s absence.

The man went on to express his fury at the political decisions that appear to have contributed to the tragedy. “Enough is enough, I have got friends in that tower, I have got a right to be angry,” he said. “Because of people saving money, people are dying.” As Mrs Leadsom listened respectfully to the rightful anger of those affected, it was hard not to reach the conclusion that the Prime Minister has now lost the public’s confidence.

Mrs May is not a showy politician and is someone, despite her unfortunate ‘Maybot’ image, who is more than capable of showing the empathy required of her office – also making private visits to victims of the Westminster Bridge and Manchester Arena terror attacks in hospital while giving moving speeches in their aftermath.

Her words, particularly after the Westminster Bridge attack, were both touching and statesmanlike, paying tribute to the “exceptional men and women who ran towards the danger even as they encouraged others to move the other way” and condemning a terrorist attack at the heart of the capital city “where people of all nationalities, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech”.

But since her disastrous election campaign, in which she was largely hidden away from ordinary members of the public beyond stage-managed events at offices and warehouses, Mrs May appears to have lost the emotional intelligence she was once able to display when the situation demanded it.

Her response is also at odds with her handling of the fight for justice for the Hillsborough victims, where she played an important role in establishing new inquests and a major criminal inquiry following the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s damning report in 2012.

After the inquests in 2016 recorded that the 96 supporters had been unlawfully killed, Mrs May paid an emotional tribute in Parliament to the families that had fought for justice for so many years.

“I have never failed to be struck by their extraordinary dignity and determination. I do not think it is possible for any of us truly to understand what they have been through – not only in losing their loved ones in such horrific circumstances that day, but in hearing finding after finding over 27 years telling them something that they believed to be fundamentally untrue. Quite simply, they have never given up,” she said.

“For 27 years, the families and survivors of Hillsborough have fought for justice. They have faced hostility, opposition and obfuscation, and the authorities, which should have been trusted, have laid blame and tried to protect themselves, instead of acting in the public interest.

“But the families have never faltered in their pursuit of the truth. Thanks to their actions, they have brought about a proper reinvestigation and a thorough re-evaluation of what happened at Hillsborough. That they have done so is extraordinary.”

But as is currently being shown, there is a world of difference between dealing with a historic inquiry and a tragedy that has occurred on your own watch which raises troubling questions about the role of Government in ensuring the safety of social housing and properly funding local authorities.

As a series of awful events have unfolded in the country this year with three major terrorist attacks followed by this appalling and avoidable fire, there has correctly been a focus on the enormous bravery of our emergency services who run towards true horrors. As events overtake her, Mrs May is coming across as someone who runs away from difficult situations.