The government was never going to come out well from Monday afternoon's cladding debate in the House of Commons, given it has taken so long to address the crisis facing tens of thousands of leaseholders trapped in dangerous and unsellable flats or holding bills for tens of thousands of pounds. Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government Robert Jenrick stayed away entirely, leaving housing minister Chris Pincher to respond at the start and junior housing minister Eddie Hughes to do the wind-up. This gave the impression that ministers do not see this as a priority, despite it developing into a huge scandal that will blight the lives of many of the people the Tories should see as their kind of voters. But more surprising is that the Labour party didn't come out of the debate — which it called — well either.
The problem is that the opposition hasn't really been very energetic about this problem, despite it rumbling on for months. It has been left to Conservative backbenchers, particularly Royston Smith, Stephen McPartland and Peter Bottomley, to put pressure on ministers, and they and colleagues were clearly all rather irritated by the way Labour appeared to be coming late to the debate and trying to claim the credit. Smith complained that 'Labour has had seven weeks to sign our amendment' to the Fire Safety Bill, but had 'jumped on a passing bandwagon'. Hendon MP Matthew Offord told the chamber rather pointedly after giving his speech that 'I shall be spending the rest of the afternoon helping my constituents and not jumping on a bandwagon'. This was not like previous opposition day debates on universal credit, where backbenchers had felt they had no choice but to rebel and send a message to ministers: the motion passed 263 ayes to zero noes because Tory MPs were happy to abide by their party whip to abstain.
That's not to say that the government had an easy ride. Far from it. McPartland was the most critical, telling the chamber: 'I also believe that the government has been incompetent... They've created a whole host of these problems.' He threatened that he would vote against any proposals for loans to leaseholders — which is significant because ministers do seem to be moving down that path. His colleague Bob Blackman also demanded that 'leaseholders should not have to pay a penny piece towards the cost of remediating the unsafe cladding that is there'.
Pincher and Hughes tried to make clear that the government was taking the concerns raised in the debate seriously. But they were unable to make the promise that so many of their own backbench colleagues were demanding: that leaseholders be protected from these huge bills, from loans, and from developers recouping the costs of remedial work through huge service charges. Along with the decision to send junior ministers to respond to this debate, it seems the government has not yet grasped how big the fallout from this crisis could be.