Jacob Rees-Mogg is facing calls for his resignation after provoking a storm of anger for suggesting that victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster died because they lacked the “common sense” to flee the blazing building.
The Grenfell United support group denounced the comments as “beyond disrespectful” and said they were “extremely painful and insulting to bereaved families”, many of whom died after being told to “stay put” in their flats by firefighters following official policy for tower block blazes.
Rapper Stormzy – who famously criticised Theresa May’s response to the fire tragedy at the Brit Awards – launched a ferocious assault on the Conservative MP, accusing him of lacking “the most basic level of humanity”.
And Mr Rees-Mogg was branded “crass and insensitive” by the Fire Brigades Union, which said his suggestion that members of the public should ignore advice from firefighters was “callously irresponsible”.
As his comments threatened to derail the opening of the Conservative campaign for the 12 December general election, the Commons leader and close ally of Boris Johnson was forced to issue an apology, in which he said he was sorry if he had been “unclear”.
But Tory woes worsened soon afterwards, as fellow MP Andrew Bridgen came to his defence by suggesting that his comments arose from him being cleverer than those who died. Labour immediately called for Mr Bridgen to be removed as a Tory candidate in the election.
Discussing the tragedy on LBC radio, Mr Rees-Mogg told interviewer Nick Ferrari: “If you just ignore what you’re told and leave you are so much safer.
“And I think if either of us were in a fire, whatever the fire brigade said, we would leave the burning building. It just seems the common sense thing to do.”
In a stream of angry tweets, Stormzy said: “Oi Jacob Rees-Mogg, you need to resign. I can’t believe the cheek. F***ing hell, these politicians are actual aliens.
“Let’s bear in mind for two seconds how horrifying and terrifying the situation would of been for the victims. And then imagine they’re being instructed by fire fighters – trusted government authorities – to stay put.
“These are the people in charge of our country and they think that the Grenfell fire victims died coz they were just stupid. This ain’t about politics it’s about the people who govern us lacking the most basic level of humanity or empathy.”
Labour MP David Lammy said he was “disgusted and shocked”.
He told BBC2’s Newsnight: “I’m thinking about those poor people who lost their lives... It’s clear that many of them stayed put because they were advised to.
“To describe them as lacking common sense is not just insensitive, it’s unforgivable... It’s such a sort of arrogant, superior point of view. Of course he should resign. It’s a scandal.”
FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said: “Residents were thrown into a terrifying, impossible situation at Grenfell – for Jacob Rees-Mogg to suggest it would be ‘common sense’ to ignore the advice that they were given was crass and insensitive. It was also callously irresponsible for a senior government figure to suggest that the public should ignore firefighters when they are in a fire.
“The ‘stay put’ policy was designed for circumstances when an evacuation is not safe and has saved countless lives in the past. However, there was no clear guidance for what firefighters should do when it failed at Grenfell. Crucially, Rees-Mogg’s Tory colleagues, Eric Pickles and Gavin Barwell, ignored warnings about the need for alternative evacuation procedures when ‘stay put’ fails. Perhaps the Commons Leader should look closer to home.”
Last week’s devastating report into the tragedy revealed that 55 of the 72 people who died in the fire were told to remain in their flats by the fire brigade.
There have been calls for London Fire Brigade commissioner Dany Cotton and other bosses to face prosecution, after Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the inquiry chair, declared the evacuation delay “cost lives”.
Mr Rees-Mogg discussed the Grenfell inquiry’s findings on the fire brigade’s controversial “stay-put” policy on LBC Radio.
He argued he had come to his view “the more one’s read over the weekend about the report and about the chances of people surviving”.
The Commons leader also rejected any suggestion that “racism” or “policies of class” played any part in the build-up to largely low-income people being trapped in the inferno.
“I don’t think it’s anything to do with race or class and, indeed, I think it’s rather sad to raise these types of points over a great tragedy,” Mr Rees-Mogg said.
“Nobody was evil in relation to this great tragedy, but people made mistakes. And humanity makes mistakes and sometimes they have deeply tragic consequences.
“But it wasn’t done because people had chips on their shoulder or they were bad people – they just got something terribly, terribly wrong.”
Ahmed Chellat, 62, who lost five members of his family in the 2017 tragedy, demanded an apology, telling The Daily Mirror: “He has got to apologise. People died on the stairs trying to leave, they could not breathe.”
And Yvette Williams, chair of campaign group Justice4Grenfell, said: “This is an appalling statement. Rees-Mogg has a privileged background.
“How many tower blocks has he lived in? It was his government who destroyed fire regulations.”
In a statement issued later by his office, Mr Rees-Mogg backtracked, insisting he had meant to say that, “with hindsight”, no one would have obeyed the fire brigade’s advice.
“I profoundly apologise,” he said, adding: “What’s so sad is that the advice given overrides common sense because everybody would want to leave a burning building.
“I would hate to upset the people of Grenfell if I was unclear in my comments. With hindsight and after reading the report no one would follow that advice. That’s the great tragedy.”
Mr Bridgen later told BBC Radio 4’s PM: “Jacob is a leader, he is an authority figure, and what he has failed to realise is that in a life-threatening and stressful situation, most people will probably defer to the advice of an authority figure, be that someone from the fire authority or police, and not come to their own conclusions.
“As we know, when it comes to Grenfell, that advice was flawed.”
Challenged over whether his comments suggested that Mr Rees-Mogg regarded himself as cleverer than those who died at Grenfell, Mr Bridgen said: “We want very clever people running the country, don’t we? That’s a by-product of what Jacob is and that’s why he is in a position of authority.”
His comments were denounced as “contemptible” by Labour’s campaign coordinator Andrew Gwynne, who said Mr Johnson should “remove him as a candidate” in the election.
“What Rees-Mogg and Bridgen said go to the poisonous heart of the Tories’ attitude towards people in our communities,” said Mr Gwynne.
“The choice at this election is clear – the Tories who blame the victims of tragedy, or Labour who are on your side.”
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