Emily Maitlis interviewed the Prime Minister, Theresa May, on Newsnight last night regarding the Grenfell Tower fire disaster. The Prime Minister had been criticised for not talking to the residents of the area when she had visited the site during the day. After the recent election campaign, when she was criticised for being aloof and distant from the electorate, some may say she has missed an important opportunity to show that she is capable of engaging with the public and taking criticism.

The interview was conducted by Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis. Politicians are known for their equivocation when presented with tough and face-threatening questions but May’s ‘detachment’ from the interviewer’s questions was quite startling. She was asked a total of 14 questions and in only a few cases could it be argued that she actually addressed the question in any shape or form. In most cases, she provided stock governmental answers touching on the emergency response or the nature of the tragedy, while failing to pick up on the mood of the interview or engaging with the questions. This detachment from the interview may add to the public’s perception that Theresa May, as a leader, lacks the soft skill of engagement.

The Interview: 14 questions

I have transcribed the interview questions (EM) below and indicated the first line or two of May’s (PM) response. The important thing to look at is the purpose behind the question and the degree to which the Prime Minister addresses this (or does not) in her reply. In many cases she simply ignores the question and answers a completely different one. (You can listen to the interview in full via the links at the bottom of the page.)

In question 1 below, EM asks why she did not do an interview at the site. The PM ignores this and resets the question to ‘what I want to talk about…’.

1.EM: Prime Minister you’ve come here today to the BBC
      instead of doing the interview at the site
      where you just were
      why is that?
       (1.0)
PM: well (.) what I want to talk about today (.) is
    what the government is making available
    to the victims (.) of this absolutely horrendous tragedy
    ...((LONG TURN))

In question 2 below, EM asks the PM to accept some responsibility but the PM avoids this.

2.EM: there is a need for the public
      to hear you say in words of one syllable
      something terrible has happened
      something has gone badly wrong
      it is our fault
      we acknowledge that
      and accept responsibility
       (0.3)
PM: this has been a-
    something terrible has happened
    this is an absolutely awful fire that took place
    ...

This continues for most of the interview. In a few questions, the PM engages with the line of questioning but mostly in a superficial way. While some at Westminster may suggest that these type of answers demonstrate a competent performance, the tone of the responses will not help the perception that she stands aloof and disengaged from the public.

3.EM: do you accept
      that you misread the public mood on this one
      you misread the anger that people feel about this
      they shouted coward at you this afternoon
      when you left St Clements
       (1.1)
PM: what I have done since this incident took place
    is first of all yesterday
    ensured that the public services
    had the support that they needed
    ...
4.EM: but that’s three days on Prime Minister
      this is Friday evening
      they needed those things in place on Wednesday
      ...
      no one was in charge
       (0.6)
PM: what er I had er done today
    is ensured that we are as a government
    putting that funding in place
    ...
5.EM: when do they get that funding
      when are they told where they are going to be housed
PM: this has been a terrifying experience for people
    ...
6.EM: but why wasn’t it there in place
      any other tragedy flooding
      you would have had the army there
      you would have had organisers
      I was there on the ground
      I saw the chaos for myself
      there was no one in charge
      and there was nobody willing to accept responsibility
       (1.3)
PM: we are ensuring that support is put in place for people
    now that means that money should be made available
    ...
7.EM: they’re being rehoused outside the borough
      they’re being rehoused in places they don’t know
      and don’t live (.) don’t have friends (.) don’t have family
       (0.2)
PM: we are committed to ensuring
    that people are rehoused
    as far as possible within the borough
    ...
8.EM: I ask you again
      do you accept though
      that you misread the public mood
      the level of anger
      you didn’t go and meet residents
      and they really resented that
       (1.2)
PM: this was terrible tragedy that took place
    ...
9.EM: this was preventable
      wasn’t it?
      in 2013 a coroner had safety recommendations
      which included putting sprinklers in all these buildings
      and it was never done
      there was two types of material
      that could have been used in the cladding
      one was flammable and one was fireproof
      and the fireproof one cost two pounds more
      was that not two pounds worth spending
       (0.3)
PM: well (.) we have yet to find out what the cause of the fire was

    ...
10.EM: you could have stopped it spreading
      by spending two pounds more on the cladding
       (0.3)
PM: the fire service are looking at what the cause of the fire was
     
...
11.EM: but you were recommended this in 2013
      you were in government there
      and a coroner said  
      you can stop this with a sprinkler system in every block
       (0.6)
PM: and the government has taken action
    on the recommendations of the coroner’s report

    ...
12EM: but we know that Gavin Barwell sat on a report
      from last October that you should have looked at
      he knew about these recommendations then
       (0.3)
PM: no the government acted on recommendations
    from the coroner’s report
   
    ...
13.EM: just in terms of reassuring
      there are 4,000 other high rise blocks
      there are many many residents tonight
      wondering what kind of precautions you are taking
      when will you be able to tell them that they are safe
      when they go to sleep in their beds
       (0.3)
PM: well the government is doing everything in its power
EM: when?
PM: to ensure that (.) to ensure that people are safe

    ...
14.EM: does the culture have to change now
      does it have to be a culture
      where you start putting health and safety first
      instead of cutting corners
       (0.7)
PM: what we need to do
    is to ensure
    that immediately people have the support that they need
   
    ...
EM: Prime Minister thank you.

 

Line of argument

May’s line of argument is:

  • this has been an horrendous event
  • we (the government) are committed to supporting the emergency services and providing funding and rehousing
  • we don’t know the cause of the fire yet
  • the government acted on the 2013 coroner’s report
  • we are doing everything in our power

May only really engages with the questions at number 7, and then 11 onwards when the issue of the coroner’s report from 2013 is introduced. For most of the interview she appears detached from what is being put before here. Like the image of her that day standing with the emergency services outside Grenfell Tower, this interview may be one of the defining moments in her premiership.

Question asked Response Analysis
1 why did you not do an interview at site? what government is making available detachment
2 public want to hear you accept some responsibility something terrible has happened agrees something terrible has happened but no acceptance of responsibility
3 do you accept you misread public mood what I have done is ensured public services have the support they need detachment
4 they needed those things earlier what I have done today is ensure funding is in place detachment
5 when will residents get that funding? this has been a terrifying experience detachment
6 why was no one in charge? we are ensuring that support is put in place for people detachment
7 they are being rehoused outside the Borough we are committed to ensuring that people are rehoused as far as possible within the borough picks up on question
8 do you accept you misread the public mood? is was terrible tragedy that took place detachment
9 this was preventable we have yet to find out cause of fire detachment (deferral)
10 you could have spent £2 more on cladding to stop it spreading the fire service are looking at what the cause of the fire was detachment (deferral)
11 you were recommended this in 2013 when you were in government the government has taken action on the recommendations engages
12 Gavin Barwell sat on the report no the government acted on the report engages
13 can you reassure people in other high rise blocks? the government is doing everything in its power to ensure that people are safe engages
14 does the [safety] culture have to change now? we need to ensure that immediately people have the support they need detachment

BBC Newsnight, 16th June 2017, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006mk25

iPlayer: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08vf7dm/newsnight-16062017  11m45s

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