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.