Lib Dem Sam Gyimah triggers row after suggesting Labour election rival partially responsible for Grenfell fire

Lib Dem candidate for Kensington claims Labour councillors could have blocked decisions that led to deadly blaze as he calls on Jeremy Corbyn's party to step aside in marginal seat

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Monday 11 November 2019 23:58 GMT
Sam Gyimah says Conservative party is 'no longer a place to fight for liberal values'

Former Tory minister Sam Gyimah has claimed his Labour election rival was partially responsible for the decisions that led to the Grenfell Tower fire.

Mr Gyimah, now the Liberal Democrat candidate for Kensington, refused to be drawn on suggestions his former party’s policies on austerity and the neglect of social housing played a role in the blaze that killed 72 people.

But he suggested current Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad, who won the marginal constituency from the Tories by just 20 votes in 2017, could have stopped some of the decisions that led to the tragedy in her previous role as a Labour councillor on the Tory-dominated local authority.

The claim drew a furious response from Ms Dent Coad, who called the claim “absolutely sickening”.

The Liberal Democrats are hoping for a shock win in Kensington despite having come a distant third in the constituency in 2017, with recent polling suggesting that the party has now overtaken Labour and is only a whisker behind the Conservatives.

Mr Gyimah sparked a new row with his Labour rival after saying she was part of the discussions that led to Grenfell Tower being covered in highly flammable cladding, which has been blamed for the rapid spread of the blaze.

The former Tory universities minister, who joined the Liberal Democrats in September, refused to say whether he thought the economic and housing policies of the governments he was part of had helped enable the disaster, insisting that the causes of the tragedy were “deeply complex” and suggesting that the local council was more to blame.

He told The Independent: “Clearly we know now that this was essentially a candle that people were living in, and that is why this horrific tragedy happened. We’ve got to deal with it, and I will be reaching out to the communities, but we’ve got to be very careful that Grenfell is not just part of the party political knockabout. It’s one of those issues that should be above party politics and about the people and their families rather than being part of the culture war that is happening.”

He continued: “If you look at the Phase One report [of the official inquiry into the disaster], which is a very bleak assessment, there are many things that went wrong. By the way, Emma Dent Coad was on the council and was part of all the discussions that went on in terms of the cladding.

“If we’re going to get into the blame game I think this is a very complicated one and to say ‘Oh the cause is Tory government’ [is wrong]. The council is responsible and there are Labour councillors on there that could of stopped some of the decisions and didn’t.”​

Ms Dent Coad hit back immediately, saying: “It is absolutely sickening that Sam Gyimah is trying to shift the blame for the horror of Grenfell away from austerity, which was imposed by his former party the Conservatives and supported in coalition by his current party the Lib Dems.

“Labour councillors, working with the community, repeatedly raised concerns about cost-cutting by Kensington Tories, and residents were ignored when they said this was a tragedy waiting to happen. Sam Gyimah trying to mislead the people of Kensington proves that you cannot trust either the Tories or the Liberal Democrats, and if you vote Lib Dem, you get Boris Johnson.”

Mr Gyimah also called on Labour to stand aside in the marginal constituency of Kensington to allow him a clear run against the Conservatives.

Asked whether he was concerned that standing in the constituency would split pro-EU voters and allow the Tories to retake the seat, he told The Independent: “I think maybe the Labour Party should step down given that they failed, when they were the principal opposition, to deliver Remain. Maybe they should be stepping down rather than us.”

Kensington had traditionally been a safe Tory seat before being captured by Ms Dent Coad. However, polling carried out last month suggests that she is on course to lose her seat in the 12 December poll, with Labour falling into third place.

Analysis carried out for the Best for Britain group placed the Conservatives on 31 per cent, the Liberal Democrats on 30 per cent and Labour on 23 per cent. Based on polling of 45,000 voters across the country, the analysis uses the MRP method that was successful in predicting individual constituency results in 2017.

The finding is likely to fuel claims that Labour and the Liberal Democrats fielding candidates against each other will split the left-wing vote and allow the Conservatives to emerge victorious in seats like Kensington.

Mr Gyimah dismissed suggestions that he should stand aside, insisting that he was aiming to pick up support from anti-Brexit Conservatives as well as Labour voters.

He said: “This splitting the vote thing assumes that the only people we can get votes from are Labour. There are five million Conservative Remainers [nationally]. Kensington is a 70 per cent Remain seat. There are 34,000 Remainers in Kensington. You need 16,000 [votes] to win.

“The idea that the only way you can win is by splitting the vote is not true ... To win we need two in five of those 34,000 Remainers to vote Liberal Democrat and we will do it.”

Pressure mounted for the Liberal Democrats and Labour to agree to work together to stop the Tories after Nigel Farage agreed not to field candidates in Conservative-held seats in order to form a “Leave alliance” with Boris Johnson.

Jacob Rees Mogg suggests Grenfell residents who followed instructions to ‘stay put’ lacked ‘common sense’

The Liberal Democrats have so far resisted calls for such an alliance, insisting that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn‘s leadership is not a Remain party. Labour has also dismissed the idea of an electoral pact.

Asked why he was standing against Ms Dent Coad, who supports another Brexit referendum and remaining in the EU, Mr Gyimah said: “The incumbent might be pro-Remain but her leader is a Leaver. It doesn’t matter if you vote for a pro-Remain MP if the leader of the party is not a full-throated Remainer.

“Jeremy Corbyn has had two and a half years to back a people’s vote and he hasn’t. He’s become a supporter of it when it’s too late to actually implement it. We know that he’s a lifelong Brexiteer. For someone who likes going on marches, which has been the mark of his political life, I’ve never seen him on a people’s vote march.”

He said he would tell people in Kensington: “If you want to deliver Remain and you want a Remain MP, vote for me. I gave up a ministerial job, I gave up a safe seat. I could have kept my head down and could be doing other things. I am here because I am a committed Remainer. That’s the offer to people in Kensington.”

Mr Gyimah said voters were also switching from Labour to the Liberal Democrats because of concerns over Labour antisemitism and “the fact that Jeremy Corbyn keeps attacking property rights”.​

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