George Pascoe-Watson: These are the toughest of times for the PM

Written by George Pascoe-Watson on 16 June 2017 in Opinion

Dealing with the Grenfell Tower tragedy is just one of the huge challenges facing a weakened Theresa May.


By any standards, the Grenfell Tower inferno is a national tragedy with potentially enormous consequences for the government.

The sheer loss of human life is yet to be quantified. The cause and the reasons, the failures and the ramifications have yet to be confirmed. Anger is understandably beginning to replace the overwhelming show of community support which marked the first days following the tragedy.

For Theresa May, still reeling from the disastrous general election campaign and result, leading the nation at this time is an enormous challenge in its own right. This after a spate of terrifying terrorist attacks in Manchester and London – and as I write, news of an unfolding incident outside Parliament.

It is worth looking at what else sits on the Premier’s plate as she deals with the Grenfell outrage. The Queen’s Speech, the start of Brexit negotiations, agreeing a deal with the DUP, preparing for the European Council meeting and G20 and reshuffling her government. All these are the issues with which Theresa May has had to grapple this week.

Challenges enough, particularly with a brand new team in number 10 Downing Street and without the support of her only real trusted aides Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill.

Each one of these demands the PM’s particular attention, painstaking analysis and judgment calls. Get the Queen’s Speech wrong and she sets herself up for a calamity in Parliament which could lead to her downfall. The same applies to whatever deal she can cut with the DUP’s 10 strong team in Westminster.

Monday sees the beginning of the negotiations with the EU over Britain’s exit. What’s her objective? What’s the outcome she wants to deliver? What’s her strategy? And her tactics?

Get this wrong at the start – there’s a 100billion euro bill on the table – and the result could be an exocet to Britain’s economy for generations to come. Get it right and Britain could economically fly, free from the dead hand of the Brussels bureaucracy.

The G20 and the European Council perhaps are secondary in the grand scheme of things, but think about it closely. Britain’s role in the world has rarely been under such scrutiny, and the PM must seek to cement diplomatic relationships with fellow leaders if we are to be taken seriously.

Global terrorism, trade, immigration, security and defence are all in the mix. Added to which the PM has a new team in number 10, a new chief of staff, and significant vacancies yet to be filled.

I understand key figures around the Premier are on the point of resigning. Will Tanner, her very able deputy head of policy, has already gone. Could the same fate be true of his boss John Godfrey?

New ministers are finding their feet and haggling over their briefs. Nick Hurd was in his job a few hours before the fire engulfed Grenfell Tower. It’s his job to mastermind the response. The PM is already under fire for the way she visited the scene, surrounded by police officers and meeting none of the survivors.

The fact is she was given advice not to get in the way of rescue services and make things worse, not better. She will lead a cross government emergency meeting this afternoon and is expected to visit survivors in hospital. But critics are already arguing that The Queen felt able to visit the scene in full view of the TV cameras before Mrs May has managed to.

These are the toughest of times for Britain’s prime minister. Weakened by her Parliamentary position, she is fragile. It is always events that trip political leaders up, taking priority over the vital decisions that are already piling up in the in-tray.



Photo: Rick Findler/PA Wire/PA Images

About the author

George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at Portland Communications and former political editor of The Sun.

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