Emma Dent Coad, Kensington’s new Labour MP, has a rule: ‘Don’t do personal.’ Except, that is, when it comes to David Cameron (‘Camoron’), George Osborne (‘double dipstick’), Boris Johnson (‘baby-daddy’), Nick Clegg (‘puny’), a local Tory rival (‘freeloading scumbag’), politicians generally (‘knaves, sophists, deceivers’), the judge running the Grenfell Tower inquiry (doesn’t ‘understand human beings’), the Queen (‘Elizabeth Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’), Prince Charles (‘massive tax evasion’), the Duke of Cambridge (‘so thick’), the Duchess of Cambridge (‘Kate Kardashian’), Prince Harry (‘playboy prince’) and black Conservative London Assembly member Shaun Bailey (‘token ghetto boy’).
Dent Coad came to politics late, but during her half-year in Parliament she has experienced enough drama for a whole career. No one expected her to win the Kensington seat, held by Tories since it was created — and it took three recounts for her victory by 20 votes to be confirmed. The unlikely win made her a symbol of the Corbyn surge, taking Labour’s hard-left message to Britain’s richest streets. Just a few days after the election in June, Dent Coad’s fame grew in tragic circumstances. She was at the scene of Grenfell Tower while the fire which killed 71 people was still raging, and took centre stage in the response. As the council and government floundered, Dent Coad built a rapport with survivors, and her maiden speech in Parliament was a sharp critique of the inequality laid bare by the Grenfell tragedy.
But after rising over the summer, she came back down to earth at Labour’s party conference in September. Indulging a long-running obsession with republicanism, she mocked Prince Harry’s military service at a fringe meeting, saying: ‘Harry can’t actually fly a helicopter — he tried to pass the helicopter exam about four times and he couldn’t get through it at all so he always goes for the co-pilot. So he just sits there going “vroom vroom”.’ When her comments became public, the backlash was swift — particularly after Harry’s helicopter instructor said the prince was in fact one of his best pupils and had passed the exam. She refused to admit she was wrong even as Labour colleagues criticised her and Jeremy Corbyn declined to offer support.
Ever since, Dent Coad has been less vocal. One person who worked with her before she was an MP says it was inevitable that she would soon find herself in hot water: ‘She thinks she’s this grand strategist who’s better at playing the game than anyone else, but she’s actually really crap at the game.’
Emma Dent Coad entered Parliament aged 62 after a career writing about architecture and design — it was housing policy that sparked her passion for politics. She became a Labour councillor during the Blair years — although, she says, ‘I’m not New Labour and never have been’ — and calls Corbyn ‘a people’s hero’. (Despite her hard-left views, Dent Coad — brought up in bohemian Chelsea by an aristocratic Spanish father and English mother — sent her three children to public school.)
She showed her stubborn streak early in her time on the council when she chained herself to the railings of a condemned nursing home. A few years later, she launched a power-grab, forcing out experienced Labour councillors and getting herself elected as minority leader on Kensington & Chelsea council. She ended the consensual style of politics that had prevailed. One Tory rival says: ‘She came in and her line was, “We’re going to get you.”’
But after just one year of leadership, she was forced out of the job by her colleagues who were fed up with the ‘Stalinist’ control freakery — among other things, she wrote every Labour candidate’s election leaflets. ‘She’s loathed and feared by her own group,’ one Conservative councillor says. ‘They probably hate her more than we do.’ The former council leader Nick Paget-Brown adds: ‘I got the sense that she felt that there was no point in engaging and preferred to put the energy into her tweets and blog.’
In the panic after Theresa May called the snap election, Dent Coad was quickly adopted as Labour’s candidate for Kensington, to the surprise of her Labour colleagues. Some local sources blame the pro-Corbyn group Momentum for forcing her on the party; others suggest Labour HQ was just keen to find a candidate quickly in a seat they thought they had little chance of winning. But although the Tory MP Victoria Borwick was thought to be so safe that her party devoted few resources to retaining the seat, she was more vulnerable than she appeared. Her 7,000 majority was decent rather than forbidding, the constituency having been shorn of Chelsea at the last boundary review, with poorer parts of North Kensington substituted. And after a series of high-profile MPs in the area, Borwick was a weak candidate, known for her support of Brexit and the ivory trade. Dent Coad herself credits ‘one-nation Tories’ who switched to Labour for her victory, and has been careful to appear moderate on local issues, such as opposing her own party’s ‘bonkers’ mansion tax proposals.
The fire broke out at Grenfell Tower six days after Dent Coad was elected. She helped on the ground, as well as lobbying ministers to improve support for survivors and calling for an inquiry into the wider causes. One local opponent admits: ‘She dealt with the Grenfell response quite well. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.’ She became so popular with some survivors that, at the first council meeting after the fire, they called on her to take over. (At least one survivor disagrees, however. He accuses her of ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ while staying aloof from the hands-on response.)
Dent Coad savaged the Tory council leaders and called for those responsible for the disaster to be jailed. But questions have arisen about her part in the refurbishment of the tower, which is believed to be a factor in the rapid spread of the fire. Dent Coad sat on both the Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation board, which managed Grenfell, and the council’s housing sub-committee while plans for the work were discussed. At one meeting, she praised the refurbishment proposal, saying that it ‘showed the council had listened to those residents’. She denies any responsibility for the details of the refurbishment, insisting that she never had any say in the choice of contractors or materials used.
She has long loathed the monarchy: she joined the pressure group Republic in 2005, after pictures emerged of Prince Harry dressed as a Nazi, and has described the royals as ‘work-shy scroungers’. Dent Coad held an alternative ‘people’s picnic’ while her neighbours were holding street parties to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday. Colleagues were unsurprised to hear of her slurs on Harry (and Prince Philip, whom she accused of infidelity). One former Labour councillor says: ‘It’s authority in general — she doesn’t like uniforms or anything like that.’
For Dent Coad, the stubbornness that marked her rise proved to be her Achilles heel. Within weeks of her arrival as a political star, she damaged her credibility with a single rant. But for Corbynistas like her, compromise is unthinkable. After all, as one rival puts it: ‘When you’re fighting the class war, you give no quarter.’