We can't yet be sure what caused the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower. Early speculation, some of it expert, some of it not but based on eyewitness testimony, points to the cladding on the outside of the building, which was added during a recent £8.6m makeover. This, it seems, may have turned an ugly but safe concrete tower into a death trap.
Nor do we have any idea how many people were killed in the blaze. Commander Stuart Cundy of the Metropolitan Police said at 11 a.m. today: 'Sadly I can confirm the number of people that have died is now 17. We do believe that that number will increase.' There are still 37 people receiving treatment, of which 17 are in critical care. Many people are missing, as all papers reported this morning.
Yesterday, I suggested that it was too early – as the tower smouldered – for political finger-pointing, despite the number of questions that needed answering about the building's management, ownership and residents' concerns. That is still partly true. Jeremy Corbyn has hinted that government spending cuts are to blame, which seems premature and too bluntly political to me (especially if an expensive refurbishment played a role). It is welcome that Theresa May has now announced a full public inquiry.
But I would like to raise one political question, about the two main party leaders' visits to the scene of the disaster this morning. First was Theresa May. As the Mirror reported:
Theresa May made a private visit to the site of the Grenfell Tower fire this morning.
The Prime Minister spoke to emergency services staff at the foot of the tower, which was devastated by flames in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and no survivors, media or members of the public were present.
Why on earth didn't May meet or speak to any survivors of the fire, show some empathy in public, and promise them face-to-face that the government would look after them and get to the bottom of what nearly killed them? It would have perfectly rebutted the claim that the rich and powerful simply don't care about the lives of poorer people who live in social housing.
She apparently didn't speak to a single local about what had happened. This is exactly what Tory MPs, and indeed many voters, complained about during and after the election: May comes across as too cold and detached. In statements, she has said she wants to 'reassure' the residents of Grenfell Tower. Why not do that in the flesh? George Bush diverting Air Force One to fly over the scene of the Hurricane Katrina disaster springs to mind. Rightly, he was criticised as too distant from the misery below.
In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn visited the site later on, meeting locals and – TV footage shows – even embracing them. He promised: 'The truth has got to come out, and it will.' Grenfell Tower's survivors, and others, will draw their own conclusions from this. One distraught woman has already complained to Corbyn himself about May's visit. The general public, too, will form very different impressions of how the two main party leaders responded to this horrific event.