The first crisis management rule in the New Labour playbook was: find someone to blame. Downing Street could have taken this course when the floods first overwhelmed the Somerset Levels last month. It could have turned on Chris Smith and the Environment Agency for its failure to dredge, and dragged up the £593m it spent on staff and pensions last year, compared to £20 million on culverts and channel improvements (hat-tip: John Redwood), before pledging to sack Smith and abolish the agency. If that didn’t work, it could have briefed against the Minister responsible, Owen Paterson – particularly since he disagreed with David Cameron’s view that climate change is probably connected to the floods – and let it be known that he would be sacked at the next reshuffle.
Number 10 is not openly briefing against the Environment Secretary. But it was a bad sign for him last week that the Prime Minister took “personal charge” of Cobra and was urging more dredging. And complaints turn up in today’s Daily Mail, in which Paterson “is accused of botching the response, leaving his wellington boots in his car while visiting Somerset, blaming Dutch settlers under Charles I for draining the Levels and refusing to support claims the storms are linked to climate change. Senior government sources have expressed surprise that Mr Paterson repeatedly insisted the situation was under control, with junior ministers chairing Cobra meetings in the early days of the crisis”. One Cabinet Minister says off the record that the Environment Secretary “isn’t climate sceptic, he’s climate stupid”: so much for collegiality.
The Prime Minister isn’t being publicly critical of Smith, either. But Eric Pickles certainly was over the weekend – a position from which he retreated yesterday. What happened? Was the Communities Secretary freelancing? Or was he “only obeying orders” – which he perhaps interpreted over-enthusiastically? While Pickles is certainly independent-minded, he will surely have talked to Number 10 over the early part of the weekend, and it’s hard to believe that he wasn’t given some guidance. The details may be obscure, but their drift is clear: policy is being driven back towards what Paterson wanted in the first place. That’s to say, the Environment Agency will stay in place, as will Smith, at least for the time being. Ministers will thus be as nice to it as possible, because they’re reliant on it to deal with the flooding.
There will be more dredging – but it is not a cure-all for flooding everywhere in Britain, the position that Paterson has taken from the start. He may or may not have projected his approach as effectively as Downing Street would wish, but no Cabinet member should be ridiculed by a colleague as the Environment Secretary is being this morning. Paterson, too, was right to argue that there’s no proof of a connection between climate change and the current flooding. A bold course would be to abolish the agency and return its powers to local councils (as Harry Phibbs proposed on this site two weekends ago) or at least to “introduce at least some measure of local accountability”, as Martin Parsons argued more recently. But this is not going to happen – if for no other reason than Nick Clegg liking nothing more than a new Conservative plan to block. Nor would scrapping the EA cause the floods to vanish.
All this might have been different had Number 10 focused earlier on bringing a more representative balance to quango appointments. As Charles Moore wrote recently, “about a year ago, the tougher members of the Government at last woke up. In particularly, Francis Maude, the minister for the Cabinet Office, has worked hard to cut through the obstacles”. But change has come very late. At one point, 77 per cent of those declaring a party affiliation when appointed to a quango were Labour-aligned – a total higher under Cameron than under Gordon Brown. The moral is that if flood management isn’t devolved to a more local level, the quangocracy and EU directives will fill the gap – especially if they are stuck to “slavishly”, to use the word Iain Liddell-Grainger deploys in his interview with Andrew Gimson this morning. The Environment Secretary may have the use of only one eye at present. But he is seeing more clearly with it than some are doing with two.