The death toll is currently 30, but it is believed the figure will end up at well over 100 given the 24-storey block in the leafy North Kensington neighborhood of London housed about 600 residents. All the surviving residents, many of whom were already very poor, have left is desperate hope — and rising anger.
In the days since the fire on Tuesday night, that anger has bubbled into rage; at the regulatory failures coming to light in the wake of the fire; at decisions by the government on social housing policy going back decades; and most of all at the reaction by Prime Minister Theresa May.
A faulty refrigerator that blew up on the fourth floor is thought to be the cause, but the fire’s dramatic spread is believed to be a result of the cladding that was recently attached to the building as part of an £8.6m refurbishment last year. There are several theories, including the fire resistance of the cladding’s material, but the construction group leading the refurbishment, Rydon, says it met all regulations.
Still, anger has risen at the authorities after a series of relevations that appear to show the disaster might have been avoided. Residents claim their concerns over there being only one fire escape route had previously been “brushed away” by managers of the building. Members of a parliamentary committee on fire safety allege that the Government has, for four years, sat on a report in which they strongly recommend introducing sprinklers and fire suppression systems in 4,000 tower blocks. Most damningly, the housing minister at the time was Gavin Barwell, the Prime Minister’s new chief of staff.
It’s piled yet more pressure on May, whose underperformance in the June 8 election has left her a denuded head of a minority government. Her hold on the premiership is being measured by many political pundits in months rather than years.
But the Grenfell Tower fire could be her final undoing. May has never tried to present herself as an emotional, empathetic person – she was dubbed the ‘Maybot‘ during her stale election campaign. Yet her reaction to the fire has shocked even her most vehement supporters. She failed to say anything at all until 6.30pm on Wednesday, when fire-fighters had been risking their lives since the early hours. She met the emergency services on Thursday, but did not venture into the crowds of emotionally scarred survivors, tired volunteers, and weeping families. A surrogate blamed security concerns.
Yet there was opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn — a figure of fun among the political class just two months ago — walking out among the crowds in west London on Thursday, hugging them and listening to their horrific experiences. Capturing the country’s mood, Corbyn said: “Every single person living in a tower block will be terrified.”
The contrast could not have been starker. A populist who has heard the working class anger over years of austerity and real terms wage cuts, versus a walled-off icon of the establishment seemingly unwilling to display even an iota of humanity to the victims of a horrendous disaster. Little wonder May is being compared to President George W. Bush in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago.
“Theresa May has failed to judge and failed to feel the scale of this disaster,” Labour’s shadow housing minister John Healey tells TIME. “It’s not just her lack of empathy … the Government hasn’t grasped many of the things that now matter, from how people will get legal support in the inquiry to where people will be relocated – the fear is they could end up in towns or villages 100 miles away.”
Even some from her own party accused her of totally misjudging the public mood. Michael Portillo, a former Conservative cabinet minister, said in a Thursday interview May “didn’t use her humanity”. He predicts May will no longer be prime minister by the Conservative Party conference in October.
James Cleverly, a former chairman of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority who is now a Conservative lawmaker, defended what he called a “very professional” response to the fire by May. “She moved quickly to call a public inquiry into the fire and has said she will green light whatever is necessary,” he says. However, he concedes that “an emotional response and practical response are both important.”
A senior Conservative backbencher, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, said May was in a lose-lose situation. “After the election, the mood music is not in her favour. She knew that if she went among the crowds she would have been shouted at by those who have lost their homes and livelihoods … But there was no good way to deal with this. I would have advised her to take this on the chin, accept the bad television footage and meet people.”
The lawmaker accuses Corbyn of making “political capital” out of the situation after he called for empty luxury properties to be requisitioned for homeless victims in an area where the world’s very richest live only hundreds of yards from the country’s poorest. “There’s a whole load of pronouncements that have been made on the fire before any of the facts have been established,” the source argues.
May has attempted to atone for her original response, visiting the hospital on Friday and unveiling a £5 million aid package and local rehousing for victims of the fire. But the public mood still threatens to boil over into fury; late Friday afternoon, protestors stormed the doors of Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall to demand reparations. The doors of 10 Downing Street might well be next.