If David Cameron can't get the floods right, all his hopes will wash away

He's right to be on alert. Governments that don't look competent get no credit when things go well

15 February 2014

9:00 AM

15 February 2014

9:00 AM

It is all hands to the pump in Downing Street. The entire No. 10 operation from the Prime Minister down to the Policy Unit is focused on the floods. ‘We are all on a war footing,’ declares one official. David Cameron is spending his time poring over maps of the affected areas. ‘It is quite remarkable,’ says one minister who attends the Cobra meetings on the floods, ‘to hear the Prime Minister asking Gold Command about individual farms.’

Cameron knows that the floods will be a defining moment for his government. If he is still to be prime minister after 2015, the Tories must be seen to be in control. When a government loses its reputation for competence, it forfeits credit for the good things that happen on its watch. If voters think that the coalition is out of its depth in its response to the floods, they won’t give it credit for the economic recovery.

In this parliament, Cameron has already had a preview of what can happen. The unravelling 2012 Budget saw Tory support fall sharply and backing for Ukip rise. Andrew Cooper, who was Cameron’s strategy director at the time and is now a consultant at Conservative campaign headquarters, has long argued that regaining public trust in Cameron and Osborne as a safe pair of hands is key to winning back those who defected to Ukip in the spring of 2012. It is crucial to persuading these right-leaning voters that it really does matter whether Cameron or Miliband is prime minister.

First, Cameron has to deal with the emergency of the floods as quickly and efficiently as possible. Next, he has to make sure that the government is not blamed for having made a bad situation worse.

That’s where things get murky. The Environment Agency’s policies have, as Christopher Booker argues on pages 14 and 15, exacerbated the situation. But opinion is fiercely divided within the government about whether — and when — to lay the blame at theagency’s door.

The organisation’s chairman is the former Labour culture secretary Chris Smith. Its ideological approach and inefficient structure make it a tempting target for public outrage — the Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, who is in temporary charge of the government’s response to the floods because Environment Secretary Owen Paterson is recovering from emergency eye surgery, duly took a pop at the quango over the weekend. But given that this crisis is going to last months, picking a fight with the agency too early is not a sensible idea. The government doesn’t want to be in a war of words with the group it must rely on to man the flood defences. As Donald Rumsfeld once remarked: ‘You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.’

There is also the rather embarrassing fact that Caroline Spelman, the coalition’s first Environment Secretary, decided to reappoint Smith in 2011, which means the government can’t escape blame for how he’s run the agency. His tenure is up this summer and Paterson has already made clear that, in a break with the current approach, the new head will be someone who understands the need to manage the countryside.

The role of the Environment Agency does, however, reveal something about what has gone wrong in our politics. It has behaved as if nature is self–regulating, which it isn’t, and put the interests of wildlife above those of humans. But those forced out of their homes on the Somerset Levels because of this approach can’t vote the Environment Agency out of office. The power of bodies such as this is one of the reasons for the current anti-politics mood in this country. These quangos blur the lines of accountability and make it impossible for voters to work out whom to hold responsible for what. A solution would be to ensure that all quango chiefs resign on the election of a new government. This would then allow the incoming administration to reappoint those it wanted to keep and replace those it did not. Once this had happened, it would be fair to hold the government responsible for the performance of these agencies.

The argument against this approach is that it would introduce (or reintroduce) a spoils system into British politics. But patronage has to come from somewhere and having the new government exercise it would make it more democratic and more accountable. It would also force the Prime Minister and the cabinet to think about what they want these agencies to do. It clearly would have been a good thing if the coalition had in 2010 considered whether it wanted to make the Environment Agency dredge the rivers in Somerset.

So far the coalition has stuck together in its response to the floods. The arguments have been Tory in-fights rather than coalition clashes. But given that the south west is the main Tory-Lib Dem electoral battleground, one wonders how long this peace can hold. It is also worth remembering that Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary and climate change zealot, relishes any opportunity to attack Paterson, the Tory Environment Secretary.

One thing that makes this situation easier for the government is that the places affected are generally coalition constituencies. Foot and mouth was difficult for Labour because of the perception that this predominantly urban party did not care about rural England. It isn’t possible, though, to claim that the government is being slow because homeowners in the Thames valley or Somerset are not ‘their people’. Cameron also has in Paterson the first Environment Secretary for a generation with a country background and an instinctive grasp of rural issues.

If the government gets its handling of the floods wrong, Cameron’s chances of staying in No. 10 after the next election will be washed away. But if he shows that the government can control the crisis and that he is an effective leader in an emergency, it could reinforce his claim to be the best Prime Minister on offer. ​

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  • isthisreallife2

    The fact is hardly anyone has the slightest clue whether the EA has or hasnt done a good job – how many homes have been saved or not. It has transpired that the argument over whether to dredge or not to dredge is actually quite complicated which has left some politicians looking a bit foolish.

    The public WILL listen to the scientists though when the main broadcasters give them a rare window of air time. And most of the scientists haven’t been critical of the EA but have been critical of the coalitions decision to cut funding to the EA. So, it’s difficult to see how the government can emerge with much credit – especially given the lack of urgency initially show in the recovery operation/calling out the army/visiting affected areas etc. That was the one area where Cameron could have salvaged some political capital and he failed – big time.

  • AnotherDave

    I like the Carswell/Hannan suggestion of having quangos re-apply to parliament for their budgets every year.


    • rtj1211

      Every year is ridiculous – you spend far too much time deciding whether to do something and no time to get anything done. Every three years is sensible in the main. However, there are some things where you need a policy for a decade or even a century to actually get any benefit (the latter mostly to do with regrowing traditional trees).

      • Jack Evans

        Isn’t that what the Public Spending Review is for? That happens every 3/4 years doesn’t it?

    • Pip

      There should be no Quangos, they were created by Labour in order to allow the UK to be Governed by the EU whilst circumventing Westminster and democratic accountability, those who haven’t realised this yet should try and play a little catch up.

      • Leo

        What nonsense, the first Quango was set up in 1514 (the run the country’s lighthouses) and therefore precedes Labour, the EU or just about any current concept of “Westminster” that is not purely geographical.

        • Pip

          You have completely missed the point.

      • Tom Tom

        What was Prisons Agency under Michael Howard ? What was “Next Steps”under Margaret Thatcher ?

      • Tom Tom

        No…Manpower Services Commission under David Young……Atomic Energy Authority,

        • global city

          His only error was in saying it was all down to Labour. Most of the quangos were created by the tories, but his reason suggested is the correct one.

  • dominic adler

    From the London Borough of Richmond-Upon-Thames to Tory-voting marginals in the West Country, Dave has performed the remarkable feat of creating a deep, muddy ribbon of resent towards the government. Bravo, Dave, bravo.

    • perdix

      So Cameron is responsible for the Thames bursting its banks? Give us a break from your ridiculous hysterics.

      • dominic adler

        Nice straw man. Where did I say that?

        The perception of squabbling and incompetence is a fact. Dave looking manly in his Hunters winds people up.

      • Pip

        Maybe not but he is responsible for so many other things and certainly he is responsible for allowing the EA led by a Blairite Crony to stop dredging rivers that have been dredged for 3oo years at least, at the behest of the EU, those are the real facts, everything else is just propaganda and rhetoric

        • global city

          The EU and Lib Dem freakery should see both eliminated from the region later this year.

          Cameron can’t blow the whole CAGW scam as he is also up to his neck in it…that is why Miliband has basically been daring him to last week.

      • teledaft

        How did you come to that conclusion from Dominics post,I think your last sentence is more applicable to you

  • statechaos

    We are in the midst of the wettest winter for 250 years. Arguing about whether to dredge or not is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Relief from the extreme weather is the top priority and Cameron is right to focus on this. In the aftermath Government will have to have new strategies for dealing with the effects of these extreme weather events. But Miliband and Farage trying to make political capital out of this misery is disgusting. Accusing the Coalition of cutting budgets when there was , in their own words ” No money left” when Labour left office is hypocrisy of the highest order.

    • Pip

      Farage is the only one who has offered any sensible suggestions and solutions.

      • Tom Tom

        He is offering LibDem voters across the South West an alternative

    • Tom Tom

      We live on one of the wettest parts of Europe where no part of England is distant from a waterway. It is dependent upon surface water for reservoirs in a way other EU states are not…….it is bl@@dy obvious we need to dredge and keep river banks shored up and pump in sub-sea-level areas.

      Government wasted £5 billion on foot and mouth because it was complacent, smug, incompetent……the same asleep-at-the-wheel syndrome is evident here – just as in Equitable Life, the GFC, and immigration – we have incompetents at every level of government just as in 1913 Russia……..a Failed State

    • global city

      that’s like saying that because the car’s engine seized up when being driven at 200 miles an hour it does not matter that nobody bothered to put any oil in it.

  • Peter Stroud

    Owen Paterson’s desire to replace Lord Smith with a person qualified in countryside management, should be supported. A better move would be to dismantle the agency, and reemploy its staff within the various relevant government departments.

    • Pip

      Indeed after firing all senior management.

  • Leo

    I am not convinced that tying quangos to politics is the way to go.

    Every year I get more convinced that this country needs less politics, not more. Particularly with the type of politicians we seem to have in Britain. Ignore facts, ignore developments in the last 100 years, ignore science and expertise, only focus on ideology. Our politicians are not focused on solving problems, finding solutions or making Britain better. They are focused on following some ideology, scoring ideological points and aligning policy with ideology instead of solving problems.

    The main issue is that these ideologies (whether Tory, Labour or LibDem) appear to stem from a couple of pre-20th century armchair philosophers. They have little use outside of the philosopher’s study in the real world and definitely not in the 21st century where the rest of the world has moved on from 18th or 19th century society.

    These things have only become worse with the increase of career politicians. One can become a senior cabinet minister by joining the party treadmill in a junior job straight out of uni, religiously towing the party line (ideology, not solutions) for twenty years to advance to a senior minister without ever having had a real job. You know, a real job like dealing with non-politicians, trading with other countries, running a business with a profit/loss account and the chance of going bankrupt, providing a service (or not) to actual people, cleaning the piss of a demented lady off the floor etc. etc.

    Until we get politicians focused on solving problems and advancing Britain instead of scoring ideology points I think we need less politics, not more. And yes, in the minds of the 19th century philosophers, that means less “representation” and “accountability” but frankly, they are not all that if the results are a grey area between being electable and being corrupt.

    One only has to look across the pond to see that the US has made just about anyone in administrations elected, right down the the Sheriff’s clerk. Has it made the country a spectacularly well-run country? Not particularly. Spectacularly ungovernable, divided and wasteful is more like it…

    • James Jones

      “focused on following some ideology”
      “get politicians focused on solving problems”

      They are focused on following an ideology and on solving problems.

      The ideology is:- To make the smallest number of people possible as rich as possible while impoverishing everyone else.

      The problem is:- How to achieve the goal without triggering bloody revolution accompanied by a long row of guillotines on The Mall.

      We have government of the plutocrats, by the plutocrats and for the plutocrats.

      Vote UKIP for (some) change (or other).

  • Pip

    Cameron and the Tories are finished regardless of dishonest MSM attempts to influence Public opinion to the contrary, and Labour are unelectable, very interesting times ahead.

  • Drainsville

    I wouldn’t focus on so much on David Cameron’s response to cyclical weather, but more on why so many stock photographs of him in less recent episodes of high water are flooding the media? Is this a good thing to have so many stock news reel and imagery being proffered as reality of the current situation? Where is he today? Where are we today, or are we not really meant to know?

  • James Jones

    Surely all he has to do is to shout from the rooftop of No. 10:-

    THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS Man Made Climate Change!
    THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS Man Made Climate Change!!
    THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS Man Made Climate Change!!!

    Over and over again and he will be assured re-election.

    • global city

      Absolutely, especially as Miliband has decided to jump back on board the CAGW lunacy…. but he won’t as he’s in it up to his neck himself as far as that global scam goes.

      The time will surely soon come for those of the political class who have looked to international memes and the EU elite for plaudits rather than trying to run the country on behalf of those who directly elected them?

  • kenneth smith

    How anyone can try and score Political points when people are suffering is beyond comprehension. Wait until all the facts are known and the Scientists have given this Natural phenomena their consideration and report the findings. People are fed up being used to enhance political views

  • drydamol1


    Prolific Liar and Public Purse Thief Smith has gone over
    the edge .He hasn’t the courage of his convictions to stand by his commitment
    to Demolish the Welfare State in the open and is now targeting those of non -working status to deny them
    Medical assistance and letting the Media blame NICE .

    The National
    Institute for Health and Care Excellence yesterday criticised this latest move
    but the Media deem it their prerogative to blame them .If the Government had
    not briefed them about the issue as always happens the Media would have run it
    as Headlines in a tit for tat consequence of not being in the ‘loop’ that’s the
    only time we get the truth about an issue .

    The Coward Psychopath Smith (sue me if you dare) is again
    picking on the weakest – Pensioners and the Unemployed .Pensioners have worked
    most of their lives and deserve care in their retiring years as for the
    Unemployed create some proper jobs .

    Smith is the type of Yob that kicks you when you are down
    the Unemployed have to suffer being Sanctioned unjustly ,forced onto workfare
    or work through a criminal agency for a couple of hours per week whenever they
    are required .

    The odds are completely stacked against us the public we
    have Liars that control the Media and use it for their own Propaganda ends
    without a thought about the impact it has .

    The Lunatics have taken over the Asylum .