DAN HODGES: Crumbling schools, jail breaks and a hapless PM

DAN HODGES: Crumbling schools, jail breaks… and a hapless PM with the non-midas touch

Holbeck Hall was the pride of Scarborough. The Tudor-style mansion sat in six acres of grounds, offered a magnificent baronial fireplace and boasted panoramic views of the rugged North Yorkshire coastline. Or it did until a June afternoon in 1993, when it dramatically collapsed into the sea, watched live by millions on national television.

Heavy rainfall and decades of coastal erosion of the surrounding clay cliffs had sealed the four-star hotel’s fate.

A few days later, Labour’s then leader John Smith rose in the House of Commons to open a debate on the Tory Government’s economic and social policy, and promptly ripped John Major and his administration to pieces.

The fiasco of Black Wednesday; the disastrous pit closure programme; the Matrix Churchill scandal involving sales of equipment to Iraq; bungled education tests; and the impending chaos of rail privatisation.

Smith concluded: ‘The tragedy for us all is that it is really happening – it is fact, not fiction. The man with the non-Midas touch is in charge. It is no wonder we live in a country where the Grand National does not start [the race had been abandoned that year after animal rights protesters invaded the Aintree course] and hotels fall into the sea.’

Britain again appears to be falling down. And a Prime Minister with the non-Midas touch seems equally powerless to do anything about it, writes DAN HODGES

The 110-year-old Holbeck Hall hotel in Scarborough collapsed after a massive landslip

I was sitting in the public gallery watching that speech and initially thought it was a bit of a silly line. Major and his Ministers obviously had nothing to do with the chaos at Aintree, or the Scarborough landslip. Then I heard the roar of the Labour benches, and looked down at the ashen faces of Tory MPs.

Smith’s attack had perfectly encapsulated a moment. An administration that was out of control. And nearly out of time.

Last week saw a similar watershed reached by Rishi Sunak and his Government.

For the collapse of the Holbeck Hall hotel, insert the 147 schools crumbling beneath the weight of their reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete.

Replace the image of Grand National stewards frantically waving red flags with pictures of police cars and helicopters buzzing around Richmond Park in hot – if forlorn – pursuit of an escaped terror suspect.

Record cross-Channel boat arrivals. The abuse claims surrounding Tory MP Chris Pincher. Ongoing industrial mayhem.

Britain again appears to be falling down. And a Prime Minister with the non-Midas touch seems equally powerless to do anything about it.

True, the slow-motion national implosion of the past seven days has not been accompanied by the kind of political theatre witnessed 30 years ago. In Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Sir Keir Starmer was strangely subdued, while Sunak mounted a robust defence of his response to the schools concrete crisis.

Woodhouse Primary Academy in Birmingham is one of 147 schools affected by the RAAC crisis

But it didn’t make any substantive difference. A couple of hours after the session, Sir Keir appeared on the Commons Terrace. Jacketless, he basked in Westminster’s Indian summer, glad-handing his MPs. Confident and relaxed, he was totally unconcerned about his relatively underwhelming PMQs performance.

Starmer’s political horizon has now shifted. You can see it in his body language – he has finally made the mental transition from opposition to government. The aura of power now accompanies him.

Just as it is slipping from the shoulders of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. Embattled Education Secretary Gillian Keegan was lambasted for her expletive-laden off-camera rant in which she raged: ‘Does anyone ever say, “You know what, you’ve done a f*****g good job, because everyone else has sat on their arse and done nothing?” ’

But her critics have missed the point. First, she was right to be frustrated at having to shoulder the blame for a crisis whose origins date back to the mid-1990s, and which had been ignored by her predecessors of all political persuasions.

Yet more telling was the fact that her outburst was not motivated by arrogance – as her denigrators claimed – but by fatalism. Keegan’s unguarded comments weren’t the words of someone who hubristically believes she was born to rule. They were the honest, if exasperated, outburst of a woman who thinks the game is effectively up.

Similar fatalism is seeping into No 10.

A few days ago, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Liam Booth-Smith stunned an assembled group of Government special advisers by castigating them for not having sufficient belief in a Tory victory at the next Election. Booth-Smith, who has a penchant for sporting biker jackets to work, even offered to find new jobs outside Westminster for any heretics.

‘Downing Street’s starting to crack,’ one Minister told me. ‘When the chief of staff delivers loyalty rants like that, and is literally offering people outside, you know they recognise the writing’s on the wall.’

The Minister then added caustically: ‘Anyway, if they think any of us are taking lectures on professionalism from a guy who can’t even be bothered to put a jacket and tie on, they really are drinking the Kool-Aid.’

Over the past half-century, the Tory Party has built a brand of ruthless – some would say occasionally callous – competence. And the British people have broadly embraced it.

Gillian Keegan was right to be frustrated at having to shoulder the blame for a crisis whose origins date back to the mid-1990s, and which had been ignored by her predecessors of all political persuasions

But what they won’t accept is callous incompetence. And certainly not from Rishi Sunak.

From the moment he became PM, Sunak has framed himself not as the nation’s leader, but as her project manager. Calm. Efficient. Analytical. Delivery-driven.

And after the vaudeville of the Johnson years, voters may well have welcomed a period of living in a dull technocracy. Indeed, some will have been positively craving it. But they haven’t been craving this.

Schools falling on pupils’ heads. Prison escapees clinging spider-like to the underside of delivery vans. Migrants splashing ashore on the beaches of Devon, then being whisked into the night by dark Mercedes.

Tory MP after Tory MP snatching for the Chiltern Hundreds like they’re Smarties.

This is not what the British people thought they would get when they saw their new Prime Minister stand on the steps of Downing Street and pledge: ‘This Government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level. Trust is earned. And I will earn yours.’

Admittedly, they hadn’t actually been given any say in who their new Prime Minister was, or what he had planned. That had been left to a couple of hundred of Conservative MPs.

But this isn’t what those Tory MPs thought they were getting either.

‘It’s just a s***show,’ one normally loyal backbencher remarked, as he surveyed the wreckage of his party’s first week back after the summer recess. ‘I’ve only been here 48 hours and I just want to get out of here.’

There is anaemic enthusiasm for Sir Keir Starmer. The Left wing of his party are growing restless

He should be patient. He and his colleagues will likely be getting out of Westminster soon enough.

Yes, all the usual caveats apply.

There is anaemic enthusiasm for Sir Keir Starmer. The Left wing of his party are growing restless. The landscape of British politics is increasingly treacherous. Theresa May stands as a stark warning of the fickleness of public opinion.

But make no mistake. Rishi Sunak is sitting alone in the front row at the Royal Opera House. And a big-boned lady has just entered stage left.

There is still just over a year to go until the next General Election. A lot may still happen. But a fair bit has happened over the past seven days. Last week was the week Rishi Sunak’s Government fell into the sea.

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