In today’s Observer, Andrew Rawnsley writes that ‘That jeering sound you can hear is Europe laughing at Britain‘.
Though European leaders are too polite to put it so bluntly, they think that this country, once thought to be a nation of level-headed pragmatists, has taken leave of its senses. First, Britons narrowly vote to quit the world’s largest and richest free trade area. Then, at an election less than 12 months later, Britons split their support between the parties in such a way that there is no consensus in parliament about the terms on which Britain should leave. There is not even agreement about how to proceed on Brexit within the riven ruling party. Ridicule abroad is matched by ridicule at home.
Earlier last week, many on social media noted that even the Queen, who is not supposed to intervene in political matters, appeared to be sending a subliminal message through her choice of hat, the colour of her dress and her delivery of the Queen’s Speech. Some noted that, by putting her handbag on the floor as well, she was signalling that she was not amused by what she was obliged to read in the Queen’s Speech.
The ridicule is not limited to Europe. Here is a view from Australia’s ABC News:
Huw Parkinson turns to the fallout from the recent UK general election. Having lost her majority, and with complicated Brexit negotiations and fields of wheat on her doorstep, Theresa May is determined to “get on with the job of government” (and to seek the Holy Grail).
Meanwhile, in India, the Hindustan Times reported that the UK was looking to India to find nurses to fill a reported 40,000 nursing vacancies in the NHS. Yesterday, the Liberal Democrats’ Brexit spokesperson and Carshalton & Wallington MP, Tom Brake, drew attention to the impact of Brexit on our local hospital, which is the opposite of the extra £350 million per week which Boris Johnson and other Leave campaigners had said would be spent on the NHS if the UK left the EU:
At St Helier Hospital, they are no longer recruiting nurses from Spain, Portugal and Italy, partly because [the nurses] don’t know what their future is [without any guarantee from the UK Government of the rights of EU citizens in the UK], but also because the value of the pound has dropped and therefore they have less to send home as remittances and therefore they are not coming. So what the hospital is doing instead is to recruit nurses from India and the Philippines. The only difference, apart from the fact that it is harder, is that they have to pay £1,000 a visa to get them … really clever!”
Jolyon Maugham QC summarised the effect of the year since the EU Referendum in the UK as follows:
This is purely due to the uncertainty created by the Tories even before the UK has left the EU. Of course, all of this hardship and uncertainty for millions of people has been the result of attempting to keep the pro-EU and anti-EU wings of the Tory party together. So it is extremely rich for a Tory politician like Andrea Leadsom to interrupt a BBC Newsnight interviewer by saying that ‘if broadcasters were willing to be a bit patriotic’ about negotiations with the EU to refuse to answer a question about what the UK Government actually wants to achieve with Brexit a year after the referendum. This from a political party which has put its own interests ahead of those of the people of the country and made the UK a global laughing stock.
So what was Brexit supposed to be about? Taking back control of laws, borders and money, apparently. Well the Queen’s Speech for the next two years included 7 new pieces of legislation to try to make up for the EU laws which would not apply if ever the UK were to succeed in leaving the EU.
And why would the UK want to take back control of laws? Well, it was all about reducing red tape. The sort of red tape that could have prevented the Grenfell Tower fire disaster. This disaster underlined why regulations and regulators are needed: it’s to keep the public safe.
Sky News Political Editor Faisal Islam revealed last week that the Building Research Establishment had prepared a presentation in June 2014 about The fire performance of building envelopes. The presentation included a list of such fires dating back to 1991.
Knowsley Heights – 1991
Basingstoke – 1992
Irvine – 1999
Paddington, London – 2003
The Edge, Manchester – 2004
Windsor Tower, Madrid – 2005
Dijon France 2010
The presentation also included diagrams showing how fires spread in buildings with external cladding, such as Grenfell Tower.
The fire risks of such cladding were examined in 1999/2000 by the Commons Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regulatory Affairs after the fire in Irvine, Ayrshire on 11 September 1999. Unfortunately, it seems that successive Government Ministers since then refused to adapt the Building Regulations fully to take these risks into account.
As Thomas Lane wrote in BDOnline soon after the fire:
There have been many calls for Part B, the regulation dealing with fire safety, to be revised in response to the risks of external fire spread via the cladding. As far back as 2000 a parliamentary committee investigating a fatal fire at Garnock Court in Ayrshire in 1999 where fire spread externally via the cladding said the guidance in Part B might not be adequate to prevent the external spread of fire. It said external cladding systems should be required either to be entirely non-combustible, or to be proven through full-scale testing not to pose an unacceptable level of risk in terms of fire spread. It also said it should not take a serious fire in which many people are killed before all reasonable steps are taken towards minimising the risks. This advice was not incorporated into the 2010 revision of Part B. Since then there has been the Lakanal House fire where six people died. The coroner’s 2013 report into this disaster found problems with fire safety including the building’s fire resistance.
Instead the government has sat on its hands and Part B remains unrevised allowing the use of cladding systems such as the one used on Grenfell Tower.
I should mention that my father was Head of Building Regulations for England and Wales in the late 1980s. So I grew up knowing that he was investigating High Alumina Cement, whose tendency to become porous had been responsible for a series of building collapses – including the Morden Swimming baths, where I learned to swim. When he took over the job, my father decided to go back to first principles, to why Building Regulations first started to be put in place. Their origin was the immediate aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666, when a small fire in a bakery had destroyed most of the city. That would appear to have been forgotten lately, perhaps as part of David Cameron’s pledge to “kill off the safety culture” to permit a “bonfire of red tape” to liberate the UK economy.
Yesterday, Sutton Council Leader Ruth Dombey said of the Grenfell Tower disaster that “All I do know is that their cladding was the cheap stuff. Their cladding was the stuff that you use when you want to cut corners. … We have two Council-owned tower blocks here in Sutton with cladding. They have both been tested. They are both up to the highest possible standards but, in spite of that, at 9:00 on Monday morning, we are taking off a panel from each of those two tower blocks to get it tested, just to be absolutely sure it’s OK. In the meantime, one of the two tower blocks already has a sprinkler system. We believe it was the first tower block in the whole country to have a sprinkler system installed and the other tower block will have a sprinkler system installed very soon.
“But what was so different between our response and the response of Tory-run Kensington & Chelsea is that, a few hours after we realised the tragedy, we were knocking on doors on every single flat in those tower blocks, together with the Fire Service, and the organisation that runs the Tenants’ Association. And we were talking to people who live there, reassuring them, listening to their concerns and answering their questions. The Council and Councillors have to be present. They have to be visible. They have to be there to deal with things when they go wrong as take the credit when things go right.”
So far, the Leave campaigners who got the country into its current mess of starting negotiations to leave the EU without much of a plan, then calling an inconclusive General Election without any clear consensus of what the plan is now, have been rather invisible.
As David Allen Green noted in the Financial Times, the diminishing public enthusiasm for Brexit is similar to the story of the Poll Tax, which was originally proposed as a brilliant idea by Margaret Thatcher, until everyone realised how unfair (and unpopular) it really was.
And maybe, since the UK Government appears to be singularly unprepared for the Brexit negotiations, Gina Miller’s observation could be quite astute.