Jacob Rees-Mogg's Grenfell remarks 'caused huge distress', admits Tory chairman

By Aamna Mohdin
 James Cleverly
James Cleverly: ‘Jacob recognises that what he said was wrong and caused a huge amount of hurt and distress.’ Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

The Conservative party chairman, James Cleverly, has said Jacob Rees-Mogg’s comments on Grenfell Tower “caused a huge amount of hurt and distress”.

Rees-Mogg sparked widespread uproar after claiming the Grenfell Tower fire victims did not use “common sense” when they followed fire service advice to stay put in the burning building.

The leader of the House of Commons issued a “profound apology” after he told a radio interviewer: “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.”

Cleverly was asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Isn’t the reality that [Rees-Mogg] has no idea how these people live? He has no idea how people who didn’t go to Eton, didn’t go to Oxford, didn’t inherit large sums of money really live their lives?”

Cleverly said Rees-Mogg’s comments were hurtful and it was right for him to have apologised. “Jacob recognises that what he said was wrong and caused a huge amount of hurt and distress,” he said. “He has apologised unreservedly and I do think that is the right thing for him to do.”

He told Today that no one could “credibly” know what decisions those trapped in the tower faced that evening. “I don’t think anyone could think through the circumstances or the decisions we would make,” he added.

The Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen has also apologised after initially defending Rees-Mogg, suggesting the Commons leader was cleverer than those who died in the fire. Asked whether the cabinet minister meant to say he would have left the flats against official advice, Bridgen said: “Yes, that’s what he meant to say.”

The BBC’s Evan Davis responded: “But in a way that is exactly what people object to, because he is in effect saying ‘I wouldn’t have died because I would have been cleverer than the people who took the fire brigade’s advice.’”

Rees-Mogg’s remarks came on a difficult day for the Conservatives on the eve of their election campaign launch. Earlier it was revealed that one Tory candidate, Francesca O’Brien, had written on Facebook that people on the reality TV show Benefits Street needed “putting down”.

When asked about O’Brien’s comments, Cleverly said they were “unacceptable” but suggested she would not be sacked as a Tory candidate. “This is a comment which the candidate themselves recognises was unacceptable. It’s the nature often on social media that people say things without really thinking through their position,” he said.

Boris Johnson formally launched his election campaign with a blistering attack on Jeremy Corbyn, likening the Labour leader to Stalin. The prime minister told the Daily Telegraph that Corbyn would raise taxes so significantly that Labour would end up destroying the basis of the country’s prosperity.

The Labour party under Corbyn “point their fingers at individuals with a relish and a vindictiveness not seen since Stalin persecuted the kulaks”, Johnson added.

Corbyn quickly rubbished the claims on Twitter.

In his interview on Radio 4, Cleverly said no deal remained the “default setting” in forthcoming trade talks with the EU, as far as the government was concerned. “Ultimately, the default setting has always been no deal. That is not what we want,” he told the BBC. “The prime minister has demonstrated, as have the EU, that, when you are focused and both trying to get a good outcome, it can be done.”

He also defended a Tory campaign video that critics said had been “doctored”. The film depicts the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, struggling to answer a question on TV about his party’s position on leaving the EU.

Cleverly told the BBC that Tory social media feeds had posted the interview in full and then followed it up with a “lighthearted satirical” video on Labour’s Brexit position. “What we also did, and this is not unique to us, is we did a lighthearted satirical video, obviously so with a comedy soundtrack, highlighting the Labour party’s chaotic position on Brexit,” he said.

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