I do hope that my National Rust colleague William Byford is feeling better after his post on the flooding crisis yesterday [‘Maybe there is no solution …’ 14th February]. Although I cannot agree with his proposition that the world is sliding towards the Apocalypse, the current ‘national emergency’ does highlight some fascinating issues that may well have considerable influence upon the British political landscape running up to the 2015 General Election and beyond.
Chief amongst them is the balance between short-termism and the wider picture – almost, if you like, between strategy and tactics. The Coalition effectively came into being on a one-issue theme of ‘sorting out the economic mess left behind by Labour’ (and, for these purposes, let’s not dwell on whether or not blame for the 2008 global financial meltdown and its aftermath lies entirely at the door of the Brown government).
On the face of it, thus far the Prime Minister is having a reasonably good flood disaster. Having correctly identified that, against the groundswell of rising accusations that the Government’s austerity cutbacks had contributed to, if not caused, a good deal of the problems attending the West Country flooding, he came flying out of 10 Downing Street in something like ‘action man’ mode. Lightning visits for photo-opportunities in the worst-hit areas dressed in wellies, fluorescent-coloured jackets and hard hats, spouting “I’m in charge” and “We will do whatever is necessary” and – most significantly of all – “Money is no object”, seemed to indicate he was seizing the moment in the style of Mrs Thatcher or even Winston Churchill.
In addition, he quickly slapped down those like Eric Pickles whose knee-jerk reaction was the instinctive politicians’ first response to any unforeseen crisis, i.e. “It’s not our fault, let’s blame somebody else”, with his clarion call that the overwhelming priority was sorting the immediate problem.
Not bad for starters.
Now, however, we are in Stage 2 of the crisis. Mr Cameron is still flying to wherever new problems arise – yesterday it was Blackpool which, as it happens, is most helpfully in The North (actually North East) where, generally, the perception endures that the Government – well, the Tory part of it – only cares about what happens at the opposite end of the country. Any minute now I am half-expecting him to come out with the line “We’re all in this together” [well, actually, maybe not – given the negative associations the phrase has attracted since he and George Osborne wallowed it when they announced the austerity programme].
The biggest issue facing the Prime Minister and the Government, both in this Stage 2 and presumably also Stages 3 and 4 if they should come to pass, is that their duration is uncertain and, if some of the experts and pundits I listened to in the media yesterday are to believed, could prove to last another three to four months, if not become open-ended.
At some point, the sight of Mr Cameron popping up again and again all over the country to spout well-meaning verbiage (about how he understands people’s pain and is not going to rest until it is all sorted out) is going to pall and increasingly get on people’s nerves.
Today I saw a report in the media that over 5,000 troops are now involved in ‘helping out’ in flooded areas. Maybe I am beginning to suffer from compassion fatigue, but my immediate reaction was a degree of surprise that – after the latest round of savage Ministry of Defence cutbacks – we actually had 5,000 troops spare to mount this sort of intervention.
Yesterday, after having studiously avoided answering repeated questions on the point from Ed Miliband on the issue at this week’s Prime Minister’s Question Time, Mr Cameron appeared to suggest in a media interview that the 550 jobs scheduled to be shed in the Environment Agency are now going to stay. This sort of announcement, coupled with his aforementioned assurance that “Money is no object’ in sorting the current crisis, does tend to fly in the face of the whole ‘austerity package is necessary and unavoidable’ mantra that the Government was trumpeting from the rooftops only three years ago. Worse, it could reinforce the resentful suspicions harboured in traditional non-Tory voting parts of the county that ‘austerity’ was a politically-motivated policy, not an economic one.
See here for an interesting article on the website of The Guardian today by JONATHAN FREEDLAND