Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government Robert Jenrick arrives in Downing Street in central London to attend a Cabinet meeting on 14 January, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto)

From the ashes, nothing

The façade of Robert Jenrick

Artillery Row Sketch

If you want to understand Boris Johnson’s government, you need to look at Robert Jenrick.

Jenrick is the Housing Secretary. It’s possible that he got this job partly because he occupies so many houses. Only one is listed in his register of interests, but there is also one in London and one rented near his constituency. It’s all a bit complicated.

But the main reason that Jenrick ascended to Cabinet level is his deeply principled loyalty to whoever can help his career. The moment we knew the game was up in the 2019 leadership contest was when Jenrick joined Rishi Sunak and Oliver Dowden in writing a joint article backing Johnson for leader. It was like watching iron filings around a magnet: the coming men had seen the side on which their bread could be buttered. All are now in the Cabinet.

Jenrick tends to be compelled to appear in order to explain that something is not what it looks like

Since then, Jenrick has generally appeared in news stories close to words like “embattled” and “under fire”. Some ministers are sent out onto the Today programme to fight the government’s corner. Jenrick tends to be compelled to appear in order to explain that something is not what it looks like. In a different age, he would have been ejected by now, but the prime minister seems to take the view that if he starts firing people simply because they were doing a terrible job or had behaved badly, who knows where it might end.

On Wednesday, Jenrick was in Parliament explaining what the government would and wouldn’t do to help people whose buildings have been layered with cladding that turns out to be highly flammable.

It was a statement entirely unfitted to the moment, one with so many low points that it seems unfair to pick just one, but here is a sample line: “It is also important that we put the risk of a fire, and in particular the risk of a fatal fire, in context—it is low. Last year, the number of people who died in fires in blocks of flats over 11 metres was 10—an all-time low. By way of comparison, more than 1,700 fatalities were reported on our roads in 2019.”

The particular context was of course the deaths of 72 people in a single night in Grenfell Tower. It must be a great comfort to their relatives to know that they were statistical anomalies.

Jenrick was keen that people should understand how generous he was being. It was an “unprecedented intervention,” he explained, repeatedly.

Other views were available. Tory MP Stephen McPartland, who has campaigned on the issue, was furious. “It is a betrayal of millions of leaseholders,” he tweeted. “It is not good enough. It is shocking incompetence.” Well, less of a shock to some of us.

Jenrick was quite put out that the Commons wasn’t more grateful to him. It was a “significant intervention”, he said. Besides, “broadly speaking, English property rights are based on caveat emptor – buyer beware.”

This was a revealing moment. In normal times, with a chamber of MPs, he might have been shouted down. The Housing Secretary was saying that people who bought flats should have been aware of the possibility that cladding which had been passed as safe for use was in fact a fire hazard. Perhaps they should have conducted their own safety tests. That they were now faced with huge bills wasn’t the result of a failure of regulation or a dodging of the rules by builders. It was their own fault.

The Housing Secretary insisted he was sympathetic to people facing bankruptcy because of the cost of stopping their homes from catching fire. “Owning a home of your own is one of the most special achievements in life,” he said, with the authority of someone who had achieved this several times over – although never, one suspects, in a London tower block.

You can see why Johnson likes to keep people like Jenrick around; he’s not likely have any fits of conscience

Jenrick repeatedly said that he had to protect the taxpayer, even as he made this “exceptional intervention”. For context, at the same time he was doing this, Johnson’s office was explaining that it employed no fewer than three photographers to take flattering pictures of the prime minister and, on Wednesday morning, his dog. It was also Jenrick, of course, who administered a government fund for deprived areas that awarded money to his own not-terribly-deprived constituency. It’s not what it looks like, and all that.

You can see why Johnson likes to keep people like Jenrick around, “sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’nights,” and all that. He’s not likely to cause any problems or have any fits of conscience. But it comes at a cost. For all that Jenrick reminded us of his “very substantial intervention”, he hasn’t made the problem go away. A lot of buildings still have flammable material attached to the outside. A large number of people still face significant problems. Tories are still angry about it. And as Sir Peter Bottomley pointed out, the Grenfell Inquiry is likely to be followed by court cases, including against regulators.

“I hope that today’s intervention will be a permanent and lasting settlement,” Jenrick said, even as it was clear that it wouldn’t be. Boris Johnson’s government in a sentence.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover