Matthew D’Ancona :
The scale of the floods afflicting southern England since the end of last year is best expressed by the question the disaster has posed: “Is this David Cameron’s Hurricane Katrina?”
The literal answer must be “no”; at the time of writing, the death toll stands at 10, compared with the more than 1,800 lives lost in the United States in 2005. But the fact that the question is asked speaks of the impact this crisis has had.
More than 5,000 homes and businesses have been flooded. In Somerset in southwest England, the inundation has forced the entire village of Moorland to be abandoned. Last month was the wettest January since records began in 1766. The sequence of storms has seen “the most exceptional period of rainfall in 248 years,” according to the chief scientist at the Meteorological Office, Dame Julia Slingo.
What is unusual is the frequency of the gales, attributed by weather watchers to the perturbations in the Atlantic jet stream. Whether this can be wholly attributed to climate change remains an open question, but the impact of temperature shifts on the pressure that propels storms is not disputed.
Nor is it disputed that one-sixth of properties in England and Wales are now at risk of flooding – a proportion likely to rise as construction companies continue to build on flood plains. Housing is a prime political issue, to the extent that the leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, has threatened developers with government confiscation of land if they do not build on real estate they own.
Even if the skies clear tomorrow, and the waters recede, the vulnerability will remain. Naturally, the blame game has been almost as tumultuous as the weather. The meteorological explanation for the crisis has been followed by an audit of human error, and a cacophonous row over who could have done more to protect the villages and towns of southern England before the heavens opened.
Did the Environment Agency, the government body responsible for ecological protection and sustainable development, do enough pre-emptive work? In particular, did it devote sufficient energies to dredging – the clearing of silt from rivers to enable them to flow more easily – especially in the area known as the Somerset Levels, a 170,000-acre coastal plain that has been heavily flooded?
This argument quickly turned ugly as Conservative ministers jousted with Lord Smith, the agency’s chairman. Ministers claimed they had been badly advised by the agency. Lord Smith replied that he had been constrained by government cuts.
Anti-European activists pointed a finger at European Union directives supposedly mandating British authorities to make the protection of wildlife, rather than of homes, their priority. A U.K. Independence Party councilor even blamed the government’s gay marriage legislation for the crisis. Precisely when clarity and leadership were most needed, they were most lacking.
Even Mr. Cameron’s foes generally acknowledge that he is a talented politician when the pressure is on. On this occasion, he took control just in time.
Of the challenges facing Mr. Cameron and the coalition he has headed, the floods are the most politically significant. Even the riots that tore through the nation’s cities three years ago did not affect as many people. These scenes of flooding – “biblical,” as the prime minister put it – speak to two great British obsessions: weather and homeownership. Our sense of identity is entwined with our property. And the weather is what we feel most comfortable talking about.
To understand the task Mr. Cameron faces, one must grasp not only the material dimension – the cleanup costs that will run into billions of pounds – but this imaginative dimension.
Mr. Cameron’s remark on Feb. 11 that “money is no object” was clearly limited to the remedial work rather than intended as a statement of broad intent. Planned layoffs at the Environment Agency have quickly been put on hold. This, it might be said, is a reasonable response to a changed context. But it has not stopped his political opponents’ seizing upon the prime minister’s remark as a sign of confusion about austerity, his government’s defining commitment to reduce public spending and wipe out the structural deficit.
The next general election will be all about spending priorities. Though the economic recovery is now well underway, it remains fragile and no party will be able to promise a spending bonanza. So the question will be, for Mr. Miliband as much as for Mr. Cameron: What stays and what goes?
These are questions not confined to the “Westminster bubble.” They are the guardrails of a civilized society in straitened times.
The floods have also returned climate change to the top of the political agenda. Having defined himself by his green credentials in the early years of his party leadership – famously once posing with huskies on a glacier – Mr. Cameron has been less enthusiastic as prime minister, where he has been under strong pressure from George Osborne, his closest lieutenant and the chancellor of the Exchequer, not to allow the “green tape” of environmental regulations to strangle the recovery at birth.
In response, Mr. Cameron has tried to have it both ways, insisting that he has not changed his mind, while evading questions about his commitment to climate action. That is no longer an option.
Figuratively speaking, the floodwaters lap at the door of 10 Downing Street. For now, it is enough for Mr. Cameron to display “grip,” to show the countenance of command-and-control. But the questions posed by this crisis will haunt him, all the way to Election Day 2015.
Matthew d’Ancona is a political columnist for The Sunday Telegraph and The Evening Standard.
Matthew D’Ancona :