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“Events, dear boy, events …”

Simon Campion-Brown on the frustrations of being in government

This might be deemed an unacceptable reaction in polite or rational circles, but I’m rather enjoying Britain’s flooding crisis as it unfolds day by day.

On a friend’s recommendation, last night I watched a ‘catch-up TV’ version of the first episode of Channel Four’s new comedy-drama series Babylon, set inside the Metropolitan Police, in which a serial sniper kills a succession of people on the streets of London. It was well-made, surreal and bizarre at times, occasionally very funny, but I also found it over-clever, slick, fast-cut and ultimately a tad too confusing for my seventh-decade brain to connect with – at least, on this first outing.

However, I could feel some of the crazier elements having echoes in the recent antics of the Government, the Environment Agency, the locals affected by the flooding, the local MPs queuing up to lamblast ‘the authorities’ for their lack of action and finally the media crews, reporters and pundits continually invading the West Country in a desperate search for today’s most catastrophic and extreme ‘human interest’ stories.

If Babylon doesn’t quite ‘cut it’ for me yet, then maybe we should return to the BBC’s classic comedy satire series The Thick Of It, probably the television project that has given me more pleasure than any other since the original transmission of Fawlty Tower’s first series in 1975.

You can try to imagine the scene within the ‘inner sanctum’ of David Cameron’s Number 10 bunker.

On the face of it, albeit a little belatedly, Britain is finally emerging from the darkest days of the ‘austerity’ cut-backs imposed after the 2010 General Election into the fine, sunny, uplands (hopefully) of an economic recovery just about sufficient to defend the Government’s record at the next Election.

True, there are the nasty little matters of the local elections in May (viz. how well UKIP will do in them) and the vote on Scottish independence coming up in September – but, overall, the Prime Minister must have been feeling pretty bullish as he surveyed the national newspapers every morning.

Then suddenly, the deluge of rain, wind, gales and flooding swoops in from the Atlantic.

Initially, this is regarded as a ‘little local difficulty’. A call is put in to the Environment Agency, which assures Number 10 that everything is under control. Mr Cameron relaxes.

But then, hang on, this news story keeps developing and getting bigger. The locals are building up a head of steam – complaining about the lack of dredging; neglect and lack of foresight on the part of the authorities; and, horror of horrors, even governmental incompetence.

CameronfloodsOwen Patterson, the Environment Secretary, swoops upon the Somerset Levels to show his concern. So does Prince Charles, who donates £50,000.

The Prime Minister himself flies in for a photo-opportunity and public statement that he’s taken command and the important thing now is to ‘sort it out’. £100 million is found from somewhere else, for this purpose. Another £30 million miraculously from somewhere the next day.

Then the train mainline to Cornwall falls into the sea at Dawlish. Mr Cameron is now getting twitchy. Never mind whether anything is being achieved in terms of alleviating the effects of the flooding, the more pressing problem is that the government is now in danger of losing on the PR battlefield.

Blame starts being apportioned. It’s the Enviroment Agency’s fault – the chairman, former Labour minister Chris Smith, hasn’t even visited Somerset yet! Next day [quelle surprise!] he does.

Owen Patterson – the Environment Secretary who doesn’t believe in climate change – retires from the scene for an eye operation. Eric Pickles takes over and wades into the Environment Agency on last Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show (the gist of his accusation being “It’s our own fault, we made the mistake of believing what the experts told us …”), so Chris Smith hits back by saying (again the gist) “That’s complete bollocks! At all times we were operating within the budgets and guidelines imposed by the Government”.

Inside the Number 10 bunker, the PR department and David Cameron are becoming increasingly panicky. They’ve instigated all sorts of remedial measures but, far from ‘sorting’ the PR problem, it actually seems to be getting worse.

Yesterday, after banging heads together (“No bickering or blame-game stunts!”), Cameron sets off on a whistle-stop tour of the South-West. It’s slightly difficult, of course, because – with the roads submerged and the rail tracks impassable – he has to fly down there. More stereotypical photo opportunities and “I’m in charge, sorting things out” rhetoric.

Meanwhile, behind Cameron’s back almost, the Thames Valley is also now ‘going underwater’ as the bad weather continues.

Commentators have now been extemporising on the theme that there is only ever a finite amount of money and therefore priorities have to be applied.

Protecting the greatest number of people, properties and ‘vulnerable’ run-down areas have long been the historical watchwords determining government policy. It may not have escaped the notice of rural, non-South East home counties and regional voters that each of the above criteria tend to favour urban-dwellers – and particularly London urban-dwellers – over everyone else.

One question I would love to have answered by the Coalition Government – and which, of course, it will never answer in the direct sense – is this:

All the hand-wringing aside, if the measures put in place to promote the now much-trumpeted national ‘recovery’ since 2010 – i.e. the ‘austerity programme’, including the Environment Agency’s budget cutbacks and the Treasury’s directives tightening its ability to spend, coupled with the positive measures taken to try and kick-start the economy – ultimately contributed to the extent of the current flooding crisis, does the Government regard this as a price worth paying?

I’m pretty sure that, within the Number 10 bunker (if not the entire Westminister ‘bubble’) the honest answer would be, albeit perhaps with regrets in terms of the attendant human misery , ‘yes’ … er … that is, if the alternative was less of an economic recovery, or indeed, none.

Not that they’ll ever admit it, of course.





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About Simon Campion-Brown

A former lecturer in politics at Keele University, Simon now lives in Oxfordshire. Married with two children, in 2007 he decided to monitor the Westminster village via newspaper and television and has never looked back. More Posts