LONDON — Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of Britain’s House of Commons and a prominent ally of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, suggested this week that victims of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire lacked the common sense to defy firefighters’ orders and flee the building, costing them their lives.
The comments, appearing to lay some blame for the 72 deaths on the people trapped in the flames, angered other lawmakers and shocked even critics who have grown used to Rees-Mogg’s flashes of aristocratic obliviousness.
Nicknamed “the honorable gentleman from the 18th century,” he was recently seen reclining on the front bench of the House of Commons, making clear his boredom during a fierce Brexit debate. And lawmakers said that a speech he gave in the run-up to a crunch vote was so arrogant that it persuaded members of his own Conservative Party to change their minds and rebuff the government’s Brexit plans.
Johnson, who is about to formally launch the campaign for an unpredictable election on Dec. 12, is already saddled with a reputation for being haughty and occasionally out of touch. For a government trying to dispel an image of being a bunch of smug, entitled private-school types sleepwalking into national crisis, Rees-Mogg’s air of condescension and disdain has not been helpful.
But his comments this week threatened to be even more damaging, casting a fire widely seen as a failure of government oversight as, instead, the fault of the public housing residents who lost their lives in it.
A 900-page, government-commissioned report on the fire last week found that more people would have survived if firefighters had not told them to stay inside their apartments. Emergency operators also told residents to shelter in place, because the building was designed to stop the spread of fire.
Some tried to escape but were turned back by choking smoke, and others, not knowing where the fire was, feared that they would be walking into even more peril. Still others were physically unable to flee.
“If you just ignore what you’re told and leave, you are so much safer,” Rees-Mogg said Monday in an interview with Nick Ferrari, the host of a show on LBC, a radio station. “And I think if either of us were in a fire, whatever the fire brigade said, we would leave the burning building. It just seems the common sense thing to do. And it is such a tragedy that didn’t happen.”
Late Tuesday morning, Rees-Mogg apologized, saying, “I would hate to upset the people of Grenfell if I was unclear in my comments.”
But opposition lawmakers and Grenfell survivors reacted furiously. Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition Labour leader, called the remarks “crass” and “insensitive.”
“What possesses someone to react to an entirely avoidable tragedy like Grenfell by saying the victims lacked common sense?” Corbyn wrote on Twitter. “People were terrified, many died trying to escape.”
Ahmed Chellat, who lost five relatives in the fire, told the newspaper the Mirror: “What common sense is he talking about? People died on the stairs trying to leave, they couldn’t breathe. People needed help and directions, they tried to open doors, and there was smoke everywhere.”
Rees-Mogg had been responding to a question about whether racist or classist policies had anything to do with the 2017 blaze, the deadliest in Britain in generations. The fire was fed by flammable cladding on the facade of the building that survivors have charged was installed to beautify their public housing project for the benefit of wealthy neighbors in west London.