Queen Visits Grenfell Tower as Criticism Grows Over May’s Absence

Updated on
  • Premier pays private visit to victims in hospital on Friday
  • May faces mounting anger as tower block fire affects hundreds

Why the Queen's June 21st Speech Might Not Happen

Queen Elizabeth II visited a relief center for victims of the fire in a London tower block that killed at least 30 people as criticism mounted on Prime Minister Theresa May over her response to the disaster.

The Queen spoke to residents and members of the emergency services near the gutted Grenfell Tower on Friday morning, while May’s office said she would visit victims in hospital. On Thursday, May was pictured speaking to emergency workers, but was kept away from the public. Officials cited security concerns and suggested she didn’t want to distract police and others from their work.

Queen Elizabeth II meets members of the community affected by the fire at Grenfell Tower, June 16.

Photographer: Dominic Lipinski/AFP via Getty Images

Reaction among Conservatives has ranged from criticism by former lawmakers to defensiveness by those serving in May’s Cabinet, adding to questions of whether May can survive politically. Michael Portillo, who was part of a Tory government in the 1990s, accused May on the BBC of wanting “an entirely controlled situation in which she didn’t use her humanity.”

Authorities warned the death toll will continue to mount as they search the block, which housed hundreds of people, adding to pressure on May after last week’s disastrous election. With Brexit talks starting Monday, the premier is still trying to broker a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party that will allow her to get legislation through Parliament.

May Weakened

It’s a politically delicate time for May, who needs to demonstrate her leadership in front of a national tragedy that has exposed anger at the country’s social divisions and years of budget cuts under Tory government. May’s visits have been contrasted to one by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who ran a campaign promising to end austerity.

Corbyn met with members of the public and was pictured hugging tearful relatives of victims near the charred building. Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom took questions from journalists and the public at the site on Friday, saying the the prime minister “is doing everything she can,” and will visit “if it’s felt that it would be helpful.”

“This is an absolute tragedy and there are always things that we all wish I’d said this or done that,” Leadsom said in an interview with Sky News. “We’re all trying to do the best we can.”

No More VIPs

As the search for missing people enters its third day, anger among the residents was still palpable but they are less keen to talk as television cameras swarm the scene. There is a sense, from conversations with locals, that people have had enough with the VIP visits, even when it is the Queen. A man with a megaphone, shouting about the lack of a government response, drew a crowd of some 20 people as the police looked on.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan increased the pressure on May by writing to her, demanding a series of assurances. “I spent several hours yesterday talking to local residents around Grenfell Tower,” he wrote. “These were difficult conversations with a tight-knit community that is understandably distraught, frustrated and increasingly angry. They feel the government and local council haven’t done enough to help them.”

He asked for increased victim support, commitments to rehouse those who have lost their homes, details of the program to check other tower blocks, and for a public inquiry to produce an interim report this summer.

U.K. papers reflected the mood in the U.K. The Sun ran a headline on its cover “Now the Anger,” while the Mirror had a single word: “Criminal.” The Times said the recently refurbished tower block had been fitted with cladding that wasn’t fireproof, and that for less than 5,000 pounds ($6,400), a fire resistant version could have been used instead. 

When the building was refurbished, “there were so many worries,” Labour councilor Judith Blakeman, who liaised with the building’s residents, told the BBC on Friday. “We kept raising them with the tenant management organization and we kept being told that there was no problem. Throughout it, there were a range of concerns about fire safety.”

The government also faced questions about failing to act after a similar fire in 2009. Housing Minister Alok Sharma told lawmakers on Thursday that a consultation document was close to completion when the general election was called, and it would now be revised to reflect on the Grenfell Tower fire.

Communities Secretary Sajid Javid said work is starting to check on the safety of 4,000 similar buildings across the country.

“We have to act on it and act on it immediately,” Javid told BBC Radio 4. “We have to be led by the expert opinion on this. Whatever they tell us is necessary to make those people safe. There can be no shortcuts to this.”

The tragedy in Grenfell Tower falls on the same month of a terror attack near Borough Market where eight people were stabbed to death. On Friday, the police arrested a man with a knife outside Parliament’s Carriage Gates, where a terrorist stabbed a policeman to death in March after mowing down pedestrians on Westminster Bridge.

(Adds update from North Kensington.)
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