In the week that the Grenfell fire inquiry resumed, the former minister who failed to act on multiple warnings about the dangers around tower blocks is staging a cosy little fund-raiser all about his ‘career’. We wanted to listen in. Except after taking our ticket money, Croydon’s Tories had second thoughts.
KEN TOWL takes up the story
On Monday, at just one minute past 6pm, I received an email from Eventbrite, the online ticketing agency, exhorting me to “Get excited! Your event From Coulsdon to the House of Lords: An Evening with Lord (Gavin) Barwell is coming up soon!”
I don’t mind telling you that I was practically incontinent with excitement. I was just days away from being in the same (albeit virtual) space as our Gavin, erstwhile MP for Croydon Central and now Baron (Gavin) Barwell of Croydon in the London Borough of Croydon PC.
This was a man who had fought his way up from the mean streets of Coulsdon, up the greasy pole of local and national politics, all the way up, as the title of the event alluded, to the nobility.
Who would not be excited? I had questions to ask. The blurb in the “About this event” section promised “an unparalleled insight into the inner-workings [sic] of national and local government”.
First, I wanted to ask the Baron about his tenure (July 2016 to June 2017) as housing minister under Prime Minister Theresa May, and his response – or lack of it – to the 2013 fire and safety report that resulted from the Lakanal House fire of 2009 in which six people died. This was the report that recommended that all tall tower blocks should have sprinklers.
I wanted to ask Lord Gavin of Croydon about the several letters he received from the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group while he was housing minister asking him to expedite the installation of sprinklers in 4,000 blocks of flats, and expressing their concern at the use of flammable materials on the outside of buildings.
According to the Inside Housing website, Gavin was contacted by letter on September 12, 2016, and October 17, 2016, by his parliamentary colleagues. He replied to neither. A third letter, sent on November 7 that same year, asked for a meeting. This was refused, on the less-than-compelling grounds that this parliamentary committee had already met with his predecessor. Their next letter, on November 22, was ignored. Their February 2017 letter was answered in April regretting that previous letters had been “lost in transit”. A sixth letter was sent the same month, this time by recorded delivery just to ensure there were no nasty transit issues, and again, Gavin was unable to meet the scrutiny committee.
Perhaps if he had met them, Gavin might have been able to do something useful.
It was not to be, however. On June 8, 2017, there was a General Election and Gavin, the author of How To Win A Marginal Seat, lost his marginal seat. On June 14 there was a fire in Grenfell Tower and 72 people lost their lives.
I wanted to ask the Baron if he regretted not responding to the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group.
Of course, we now know that on June 10, 2017, just two days after losing his parliamentary seat, our Gavin was appointed Theresa May’s Chief of Staff, the Dominic Cummings of his day. “I used to be an MP,” he quipped, “now I work for one.” Oh, how we laughed.
I also wanted to ask him whether he was going to write a sequel to his first book, How To Win a Marginal Seat. It is not the most engaging read (despite its “unparalleled insight”) but the blurb on the front is interesting: “To win Croydon is to win Britain today – and Gavin Barwell shows how it can be done”.
These are the wise words of none other than Boris Johnson MP.
I will resist the temptation to suggest that How To Lose a Marginal Seat would make a more interesting companion piece, though perhaps the Baron could delegate that task to Mario Creatura, his former bag-carrier as MP and later in Downing Street, who was unable to regain the seat in 2019 when Sarah Jones won it for a second time.
I am being unkind. There is one interesting sentence inside Barwell’s book. It is the second sentence. It both sets up the premise of the book rather neatly and begs a few questions, the sort of questions that get asked by the parliamentary Standards Commissioner. It is a long sentence, but I will quote it in full:
“The contest in my constituency of Croydon Central had been by any measure – the amount of money spent, the frequency of visits by ministers and shadow ministers, the volume of literature delivered or the number of political activists pounding the streets – one of the most intensive constituency campaigns this country has ever seen.”
In fact, the Right Honourable Gavin Laurence Barwell appears to have sailed quite close to the wind in terms of “the amount of money spent” and the “volume of literature delivered” during his 2015 election, as well his “deliberately opaque” use of what appeared to be Parliamentary headed notepaper for political campaigning. He (or someone in his office, Creatura perhaps?) had also previously broken data protection rules (sending constituency mailing lists to Boris Johnson to help with his campaign to be elected as Mayor of London).
Barwell’s actions were described by the Commissioner as “just the right side of OK”. Not quite “right honourable”, then.
In the interests of gaining “an unparalleled insight”, I wanted to ask him about this too.
Unfortunately, I will not have the opportunity to ask any of these questions.
My excitement at the prospect of an evening with Lord (Gavin) Barwell was to last barely an hour. At 7.03pm on Monday, I received another email from Eventbrite, this time informing me that a refund of £5.98 had been issued to me. Attached was a “message from the organiser”, saying, “Sorry but this event is open only to Party members (as shown on the ticket) but thank you very much for the interest you have shown.”
The ticket did indeed say “Party member” on it, but the initial Eventbrite notice encouraging and enticing people to part with their hard-earned for An Evening with Lord (Gavin) Barwell had not a single mention of this quite specific requirement.
It seems that Barwell’s insight is for the few, not the many.
I’ll have to wait for Lord Gavin’s actual second tome Chief of Staff: My Time as the Prime Minister’s Right-Hand Man, which is due to be published in September. I imagine it will be every bit as insightful as the first.
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