Over the weekend, the floodwaters rose from natural disaster to political crisis, lapping from Somerset into Whitehall. For most of last week, ministers avoided pointing the finger, preferring to focus on producing a plan of action.
However, the New Labour approach of having someone to blame in a crisis now appears to have won out. Endless footage of inundated homes and outraged residents fills the airwaves, making the more boring narrative of COBRA meetings and Action Plans look insufficient.
Yesterday, after 48 hours of media heat on Chris Smith and his fellow quangocrats, Eric Pickles became the first Government figure to lay the responsibility at the Environment Agency’s door. It was done in a polite, if somewhat passive aggressive, way, apologising for taking the advice of supposed experts who had turned out to be wrong.
Some newspapers, eager to move the story on, are reporting “clashes” and “splits” between Pickles and Owen Paterson over the Local Government Secretary’s apology. That seems quite a long way over the top – it looks more like the men simply have different diagnoses of the problem.
In any case, there would be no practical advantage to falling out over the topic.
Pickles would not have laid into Smith and his cohorts without Downing Street’s blessing, so there’s no prospect of him retreating from the position even if some of his colleagues disagree with it. We are where we are.
Therefore, the next step is to work out an agreed line on where this blame game goes next.
Once he’s recovered from his eye surgery, Paterson will have to express a public view on the Agency’s performance. If he defends it, it would fuel overexcited headline writers and offend flood victims, but if he condemns it then he will destroy his relationship with an Agency he is meant to work closely with, plunging him into the kind of running melodrama which was just beginning in the Department of Education before the floods took over the news agenda.
That dilemma lends weight to those within the Government who think the best way to quench public anger, rally ministers around one position and demonstrate activity would be to scrap or break up the Environment Agency.
There’s a practical case – its wide-ranging responsibilities often seem incompatible with one another, and more localised organisations have been able to prevent flooding in other low-lying areas with much slimmer budgets. Now circumstances have delivered a political case for doing so, too.
The possibility is being seriously considered in various parts of Government – every day that the story continues, in Somerset as well as in Whitehall, the more likely it becomes.