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It was the first prime minister’s questions since the UK election and the Conservative benches were primed to welcome Theresa May with cheering that was loud, sustained and insincere. Jeremy Corbyn focused on the Grenfell Tower fire, asking a series of probing questions in a measured tone, to a quiet chamber.
The prime minister answered in kind, with informative answers delivered in a neutral, respectful tone. It was only during his final question that the Labour leader let rip, linking the tragedy to the Conservative government’s spending cuts.
“When you cut local authority budgets by 40 per cent, we all pay a price in public safety. Fewer inspectors – fewer building control inspectors and fewer planning inspectors – and we all pay a price. Moreover, those cuts in the fire service have meant that there are 11,000 fewer firefighters, and the public-sector pay cap is hitting recruitment and retention throughout the public sector,” he said, to Labour cheers and Conservative catcalls.
“What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed are the disastrous effects of austerity, a disregard for working-class communities, and the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners. I urge the prime minister to come up with the resources that are needed to test and remove cladding, retrofit sprinklers, and properly fund the fire service and police so that all our communities can truly feel safe in their own homes. This disaster must be a wake-up call.”
As her backbenches roared that Corbyn was politicising the disaster, May had a go at doing the same thing, pointing out that the cladding of tower blocks, which has been widely blamed for the fire, started under Tony Blair. The slur is unlikely to have wounded the Labour leader, who holds Blair in as little regard as he does any Conservative prime minister.
The other stars at Westminster on Wednesday were the DUP’s 10 MPs, now referred to from the government benches as “honourable friends” and still bitter after their success in extracting £1 billion from May in return for their votes. The SNP’s Alison Thewliss did the sums.
“We’re now in the slightly odd position where each DUP MP is worth more than Ronaldo,” she said.
Northern Ireland’s expensive representatives laughed, but not for long. Soon they were back in their comfort zone, studying their honourable friends opposite for the slightest hint of disrespect.