That Sajid Javid should be making his first major speech as home secretary on the same morning the Grenfell inquiry makes it first turn down the avenue of culpability is testament to Javid’s political skills, if nothing else.
Teflon coating has long been perhaps the solitary indispensable quality among politicians who make it to the top and then manage to stay there. Javid was communities and local government secretary, in charge of local councils when Grenfell burned and Kensington and Chelsea Council were publicly eviscerated, and perhaps wrongly, a question we will return to shortly.
It is too early to tell whether Theresa May has disproved the old maxim about the Home Office being the graveyard of political careers. Certainly she made it out alive, but it is likely that not too far in to the future, there will be a reading of history that declares her a political zombie, her past actions, especially on immigration, rendering her too certain a hostage to the fortunes of Brexit.
That Javid feels able essentially to seek to dismantle his now boss’s legacy, on both immigration policy and counter-terrorism measures, speaks not just of the discombobulating times in which we live, but also of his sizeable political nous.
But here’s the thing. It is distinctly possible that nous may, in the end, be shown to have rendered him dead even on arrival at the political graveyard.
Andrew O’Hagan, in his remarkable 65,000 word article on Grenfell for the London Review of Books, reaches many conclusions, one of which has the potential to prove fatal for Javid in the years ahead.
He suggests that in the weeks following the tragedy, in which national opprobrium was heaped on the council, they were not aided by Westminster politicians, including Javid, whose principal concern was the protection of their reputation.
He cites a telephone conversation between May and Javid and certain members of the council, in which pressure appeared to be heaped on them to meet promises to rehouse victims within the “two or three weeks” that had been publicly declared. That the council’s own housing experts said that time was not sufficient to expect victims who had lost everything to make major life decisions over their future housing appears to have fallen on deaf ears.
Now, Javid makes all the right noises about immigration, in the wake of the Windrush scandal that has shocked the nation. He speaks of an end to the “hostile environment” to be replaced with a “compliant” one.
He says he will look into relaxing the visa cap on NHS workers, an announcement that for many people will do no more than elicit shock that there ever was such a thing.
But already he is patiently reminded that his job is to “reduce the 240,000 net immigration figure, not increase it”.
And where should this warning appear? In the Daily Mail’s leader column, the 40 or so square inches of newsprint that wields more influence in Downing Street than perhaps all other media combined.
Pressed on a Muslim Council of Britain report that the Conservative Party is Islamophobic, he has had the political nous to take on their claims, claiming the group “does not represent Muslims”. But there is no certainty he is correct.
On Sunday, he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr, in regard to this question, “Look at who the home secretary is.” Javid is a Muslim through what he calls his “family’s heritage”. But he has previously claimed, “I do not practise any religion. My wife is a practising Christian and the only religion practised in our house is Christianity.”
For now, a certain malleability in the deployment of his own religion is serving him well. He has certainly done the same on Brexit.
Like Theresa May, he is widely understood to have been a reluctant Remainer. His political instincts were towards Brexit, but his loyalty to his party and his leader were more important.
Now it is his job to keep the people of this country safe. In his speech on Monday morning, he said: “When the British people voted to leave the European Union, they were not voting for us to stop working with our European allies to keep everyone safe.”
As ever, when politicians and pundits interpret the meaning of an impossibly complex democratic vote, the conclusions they reach cannot possibly be proved true. But this one, more than others, is demonstrably false.
In the referendum campaign, David Cameron gave perhaps 50 speeches. To the best of my knowledge, there is not one that did not warn that leaving the European Union would be a risk to our security. I do not think there was a single one that did not mention the European Arrest Warrant that allowed British courts to have one of the failed 21/7 bombers speedily extradited from Italy, and who is now serving a life sentence here.
British voters, faced as ever with an unimaginably complex conundrum and only the bluntest of instruments through which to express it, nevertheless chose to ignore those warnings.
British voters did vote for us to stop working with our allies to keep everyone safe. They may not like it, but they did.
As Britain looks towards another summer that it hopes beyond all else is no repeat of the last one, the political graveyard is perhaps more inhospitable that it has ever been.
Javid may be the bright new thing for now. But his recent past has the potential to make his near future an impossible place to live.
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