Our political editor WALTER CRONXITE hot-footed it to the House of Commons this lunchtime for Theresa Mayhem’s 90th session of PMQs, where this part of south London had a prominent part
With the clock ticking down on the disastrous Premiership of Theresa Mayhem, much attention at today’s Prime Minister’s Questions – the Tory’s 90th such session at the despatch box – was on what would be the “legacy” of her “leadership”.
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition, focused his questioning of the lame duck Prime Minister on her government’s feeble responses to tragedies which occurred two years ago: the racist attack on the Finsbury Park mosque, and the Grenfell Tower fire.
They were themes which recurred throughout the near-hour-long session, all the way through to May’s answer to a question from Croydon Central MP Sarah Jones on why her government’s housing ministers managed to ignore the warnings of fire risks in high-rise blocks in 21 separate letters in the months before the Grenfell fire which killed 72 people.
With the Commons chamber emptying out by this late stage in the session, there was less mumbling and background noise, so that when May sat down after giving a woefully inadequate response regarding the (some might suggest criminal) negligence of her ministerial colleagues, a one-word dismissal from the opposition benches was clearly picked up on the broadcast microphones:
It sounded like a suitable testimonial for May’s wretched three years in No10.
For much of that time in Downing Street, May has been accompanied by Jones’s predecessor as Croydon Central MP, Gavin Barwell, appointed to the cushty role as the PM’s chief of staff on £150,000.
Barwell’s previous job in government before he lost his parliamentary seat at the 2017 General Election was as one of the three housing ministers who ignored the Grenfell warning letters.
Jones had the good grace not to mention Barwell by name, though it was clear that she had him firmly in mind.
Jones said: “The Prime Minister is a busy woman and she may not have seen the latest report by Inside Housing.
“Inside Housing have revealed that three successive ministers were written to over a total of 21 times over four years by the All-Party Group on Fire Safety, urging them to act to make sure we avoid another fire following the Lakanal House fire.
“The last of those 21 letters was written a month before 72 people died in the Grenfell Tower fire. No action was taken.
“What does the Prime Minister believe those ministers should have done when they received that expert advice?”
It was Barwell, May’s so trusted advisor, who received that 21st and final warning letter one month before the Grenfell fire.
Today, the best that May could offer in answer to Jones’s pointed questioning was that it is a matter that will be considered in the second phase of the Grenfell inquiry. According to a Palace of Westminster insider, the “Pathetic!” condemnation heard around the chamber may have come from another Labour MP, Mary Creagh, sitting not far from Jones.
But as May resumed her seat, having done her bit to defend her advisor, she looked as if she had had the stuffing knocked out of her. She may have only four or five sets of PMQs to endure, but there was more than a sense today that as far as she is concerned, the end of this weekly ritual cannot come soon enough.
And it was the matter of who will succeed her which prompted some acid-bitter questions from Ian Blackford, the leader of the Scottish Nationalists at Westminster, who took the opportunity of PMQs to accuse Boris Johnson of being a racist who is “not fit for office”.
Blackford said, “Does the prime minister realise, not only is the member racist, he is stoking division in communities and has a record of dishonesty?”
Later, May’s own immigration policies, in her time as Home Secretary as well as Prime Minister over the past nine years, were also described as racist by London Labour MP Virendra Sharma.
Blackford even managed to drag Croydon into the discussion, as he repeated some of Johnson’s various attempts to pander to the far-right over immigration and Scotland.
When he was Mayor of London, Johnson had publicly stated that “a pound spent in Croydon is worth more than a pound spent in Strathclyde”, which Blackford used as evidence of a long-standing antipathy towards Scots from Johnson, Britain’s least diplomatic Foreign Secretary since Palmerston.
To shouts of “Withdraw! Withdraw!” from the Tory benches, and although pressed by The Speaker, John Bercow, to withdraw his comments, Blackford ploughed on, saying that he had given Johnson notice of his question.
Johnson is widely expected to become the next occupant of 10 Downing Street after establishing a dominant lead in the race to become leader of what is known, by its full title and without a hint of irony, as the Conservative and Unionist Party.
It is Johnson’s dismissive attitude towards the Union which gave Blackford a rich seam of material to mine. This includes a poem, passed off as “satire”, and published by Johnson in The Spectator in 2004, calling for the “extermination” of the Scottish people, and describing them as a “verminous race”. During his time in charge of the right-wing weekly magazine, Johnson also had cause to apologise to the entire population of Liverpool for some of his Old Etonian public schoolboy attitudes about Merseyside.
Today, Blackford examined the soon-to-be-Prime Minister’s racist record: “The member has called Muslim women ‘letterboxes’, described African people as having ‘watermelon smiles’, and another disgusting slur that I would never dignify by repeating.
“If that’s not racist, Mr Speaker, I don’t know what is.
“Does the minister honestly believe that this man is fit for the office of prime minister?”
The best that May could offer was a petty piece of party political point-scoring. “I believe any Conservative prime minister in the future will be better for Scotland than the SNP.” Which is not a view shared by the vast majority of Scotland, to judge by election results there over the past two decades.
And perhaps, therein, will lie the real legacy of May, and her predecessor, David Cameron, who set in train the course of events with his misconceived referendums – having “won” one on Scottish independence, he badly miscalculated over the advisory vote over the European Union.
Thus, as largely English votes seem set to drag what was once the United Kingdom out of the EU, the Conservative “and Unionist” Party appears primed to cause the break-up of the 300-year union.
But then, under such weak leaders as Cameron and May, much has changed about the Tories, even compared to half a century ago. When confronted with the racist views expressed in Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, which pandered to the far-right in 1968, the then Conservative leader, Ted Heath, sacked Powell from his shadow cabinet.
In 2019, the Conservatives are poised to elect someone with equally repellent racist views as their leader.
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