There was a moment in her interview with Emily Maitlis on Newsnight on Friday when Theresa May mentioned a woman who had escaped the Grenfell Tower fire in just a T-shirt and knickers. The woman stays with you. Very briefly, something broke through the repetitions and evasions of the official discourse being deployed by the government, Kensington and Chelsea council, and ‘interested’ corporate parties who insist that regulations were complied with and profess to welcome any investigation.

Downing Street had clearly decided that May’s performances on Thursday hadn’t worked. It was feeling that the prime minister was sent out to communicate the following day; her repeated use of the words ‘horrific’, ‘terrible’ and ‘horrendous’ was the obvious index of this. And her repeated reference to the £5 million emergency fund, with its connotations of practical immediacy, was intended to make up for the lofty distance suggested by the public inquiry she had announced the day before. By Saturday morning, direct speech had been abandoned altogether, with Damian Green, the first secretary of state, insisting that ‘she's distraught by what happened as we all are.’

It’s easy to charge May with a lack of empathy, a personal psychological failing. But her evolving language after the Grenfell fire is part of a bigger official discourse, which is itself in crisis. It is an axiom of popular knowledge that politicians never answer the question that’s put to them; a cliché that most political representatives don’t listen. Conversely, political parties never seem to tire of telling their constituencies what they are thinking or what they ‘really’ meant when they voted for Brexit or Ukip or Labour or the Lib Dems. And when they don’t respond predictably or conveniently, when they respond with anger or contempt, or propose an alternative version of events or proposal for what should be done, it is conventional for politicians to represent this not as conflict or divergence but as a communication failure: we just didn’t get our message over clearly enough.

The work and pensions secretary, David Gauke, gave an interview to Channel 4 News on Friday evening. As he tried to step deftly between ‘regulations’ and ‘guidance’ while saying nothing that would implicate him or his government in anything at all, it was almost inevitable that Gauke would slip. The speed at which he self-corrected ‘simplify the regulations’ to ‘simplify the guidance’ was remarkable. There was a startling lack of concrete nouns in Gauke’s language, and had it not been for the interviewer, Cathy Newman, you would hardly have known what events Gauke was talking about. He used the word ‘fire’ only twice in the six-minute interview, and despite Newman’s repeatedly asking whether the residents of Britain’s 4000 tower blocks could feel safe, Gauke avoided using the words ‘safe’ or ‘safety’. He wasn’t speaking to the moment but to a probable future; his words had been chosen to withstand the scrutinies of inquest, investigation and enquiry. He said nothing that attributed responsibility to anyone or anything. The Downing Street statement that support for victims in the immediate aftermath of the fire ‘was not good enough’ is comparable:

The response of the emergency services, NHS and the community has been heroic. But, frankly, the support on the ground for families who needed help or basic information in the initial hours after this appalling disaster was not good enough.

This crucially obscures the question of where the support might have – should have – come from.

Gauke’s replies were part of a catch-all disaster script, stuck together with boilerplate phrases: ‘we must get to the bottom of … we must understand … we mustn’t jump to conclusions.’ The ‘we’ of government is a problem in this crisis, raising a raft of questions about responsibility. May, Gauke et al. can adopt a ‘we’ quite comfortably if it is the ‘we’ that makes money available or instructs other agencies (fire services, local councils etc.) to make checks, follow guidelines and, by inference, bear responsibility for the fire and what follows. This ‘we’ also does vaguer stuff such as offer condolences, ‘get to the bottom of’ things and ‘try to fully understand’ them. But it quickly finds itself in tricky territory. ‘We’ mustn’t rush to conclusions or pre-empt investigations, and it can soon look as if ‘we’ isn’t doing much at all except standing on the sidelines and exhorting.

Responsibility is a double bind. The government, Kensington and Chelsea council, and the companies they outsource to, must appear to be agents who are in control and capable of dealing with what May called ‘an absolutely horrendous tragedy’. But they also want to deflect from themselves any responsibility for causing it, with the effect that they sound distant, defensive, repetitive and on occasion paralysed. Discursively they cannot win, which is one reason the fetish for feeling is so critical.

In May’s Newsnight interview, the fire was a ‘tragedy’, an ‘event’, an ‘incident’, at one point, agonisingly, a ‘circumstance’, nouns nearly always preceded by such epithets as ‘horrendous’, ‘terrible’, ‘terrifying’, which were themselves sometimes preceded by ‘absolutely’. Painful as this discourse is, it is uncomplicatedly intransitive: it promises nothing but feeling, and sidesteps hard questions about responsibility and agency. So if there is psychological failing, there is also, more importantly, political strategy. Virtues and their opposites have historically specific forms and perhaps it isn’t surprising that empathy and understanding, the demonstration of feeling for others, have assumed such significance in such a fundamentally unequal society.