So we found out how the coalition would perform in a crisis

I seem to remember having said I worried about this government’s response to a major crisis like the floods of 2007. The current situation shows all the basic flaws in the government. Our key source for this post is the Daily Hell.

First up, we have the lack of administrative grip. This lot are routinely taken by surprise by all kinds of things, and struggle to recover from the surprise. They don’t do detail. This has been going on since Christmas.

Secondly, they are heavily lightweight. After the 2007 experience, was it really wise to give DECC the biggest percentage cut out of the departments, when so many Tories (and other people) very obviously depend on the Environment Agency’s management of engineered landscapes? Was anybody thinking? Actual experts seem to feel nothing but contempt for this bunch of amateurs.

Third, they know they lack chops and therefore they turn to what they know, which is PR. They would spin anything. This leads them to do crazy things. The prime minister announces that he will chair the COBRA meetings, and then that he will fly to the Soggy Zone to be seen in his wellies. Naturally, if he’s in Somerset he can’t also be in Whitehall, so he has to go there and then rush off somewhere (probably a military installation) to find a secure teleconference bridge to dial into the COBRA.

As a result, we end up with the genuinely hilarious idea that the COBRA chair will rotate among the ministers. Let’s all hope and pray Iain Duncan Smith is last in the rotation.

And I mean the wellies thing.

Mr Paterson in particular 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.

And I mean the COBRA thing.

However, he [the No.10 spokesman] was unable to say who was now leading the response to the flooding on behalf of the government. Asked who was in charge, the spokesman said it was a cross-party effort to tackle the storms, with different cabinet ministers likely to chair each meeting of the Cobra disaster committee.

Disaster committee is putting it mildly.

Fourth, they don’t know how to shut up. Having fucked up, they insist on bombarding us with announcements, tours, photo calls, etc. When you’re in the doghouse, it’s best to shut your mouth. The Daily Hell piece was released this morning, but since then it’s gained a ton of photos of Cameron standing meaningfully near Royal Engineer plant doing jazz hands. (No. Look.) He also visits First Great Western’s Plymouth Laira depot – earlier in the day, I heard that FGW is seriously looking into how to evacuate trains stuck there by the floods, perhaps by sea.

Fifth, they are obsessively partisan. Suddenly, there is a Tory way of water management, which is “dredging”, and a Labour way which is…something else. Never mind that nobody involved could comment intelligently on this, or that the supposed pause in dredging was more than a decade ago. I can’t imagine anyone who has less to say about this than Nick Clegg. It’s not so much blind men describing colour, as blind men fighting over the definition of yellow because their PR advisors said so. You have no idea. Shut up!

Sixth, their mean streak shows. As soon as it finally became too bad to deny any more, it all came out. Pickles kicks down, like the undignified bully he is, on the EA workers wading thigh deep in the shit. Unknown colleague tells us that Owen Paterson is a buffoon:

One Cabinet minister told MailOnline: ‘He just isn’t very bright. Most of the people around the Cabinet table are bright, even if I disagree with them, but not Owen. He isn’t climate sceptic, he’s climate stupid.’

The prime minister then turns around and stabs Pickles to defend Paterson. The shark ethic prevails, in the shallow murky waters. Omnishambles rules.


  1. Guano

    Like Bush with New Orleans, the Coalition appear to have forgotten why government exists. It appears to have been only with yesterday’s emergency Commons’ debate that there was a slight realisation that they were in charge, that decisions would have to be taken that go well beyond the contracts and sub-contracts that have taken over public services.

  2. Guano

    You had an apt post on 11th August last year with a quote from Andy Burnham.

    “All the current generation of politicians, myself included, typically came up through the back offices. …… I was schooled in this, kind of, ‘How do we make a press release today that embarrasses the opposition?’ That’s the kind of politics that everyone was doing, and the kind of culture developed where you’re scrabbling over a bit of the centre ground with micro-policies that are designed to just create a couple of days’ headlines and create a feeling, but not change much else.”

    Then one day you get a briefing from “beleaguered” Chris Smith saying (among other things) that Network Rail are monitoring 24/7 100 places around London where the railway may collapse, so people may not be able to get to Canary Wharf to move money around and keep the economy going. So you realise that you are the one who is beleaguered because you are the one responsible for signing cheques, calling in the army, moving resources from one place to another or one institution to another. This realisation seems to have hit on about 9th February. It isn’t because Windsor is getting flooded (which is a nice bit of reverse political point-scoring but not wholly true). It is a realisation of the role of the state.

  3. ajay

    The problem is that they don’t see politics as a useful tactical tool for doing government with, they see government as a useful tactical tool for doing politics with. Thatcher (and Bevin, and Attlee, and Wilson) all loved politics, but they were doing it because they wanted to achieve big changes in the way Britain worked, and the way to achieve them was through politics. Cameron just likes playing the game for the game’s sake, and I think he keeps being honestly shocked by the idea that it has real-world consequences, just as you would be if you were halfway through a game of Monopoly and a bloke walked in and said “I live on the Old Kent Road, and thanks for tripling my rent, you grasping old sod.”

  4. chris y

    Guano’s point is a good one, but the government’s failure to understand what it is there to do makes t appear as a sin of omission. Not so, it was very much a sin of commission.

    Until 2010, there existed regional Government Offices providing on the ground services for most major departments. One of the things they did was to hold resilience plans for every possible contingency in their regions, which included flooding in susceptible areas. Officers in the GOs had assigned duties for which they were to be mobilised at a moment’s notice. The first thing Pickles did when his arse hit the ministerial chair was to abolish the GOs by fiat. He also made some disparaging remarks about the concept of resilience, which unfortunately I can’t find. Anyway the existing detailed plans were torn up and not replaced.

    • ajay

      Abolished them, as I remember, on the grounds that they were “interfering” and “agents of Whitehall”. Eric, you idiot, you are one of Her Majesty’s Ministers. Whitehall, c’est vous.

    • Guano

      The official announcement of the abolition of the regional Government Offices says that the allocation of the duties about resilience would be dealt with at the Spending Review. In the Spending Review document of 2010 I could only find the word “resilience” in the section about the armed forces. (“The resilience to absorb and recover from natural disasters and attacks” comes under the armed forces but the armed forces weren’t put on alert until Windsor was flooded!) Does anyone have any information (possibly with references) of where and how resilience was dealt with in the Spending Review?

  5. Guano

    Steve Richards had something in the Independent a week ago about the government not taking responsibility for flooding.

    Colin Leys had an article in the Guardian today saying something similar about the health services.

    Like Leys, I don’t think it’s accidental that the structures are dysfunctional. It allows Ministers to escape responsibility for difficult decisions about funding or strategy and allows the private sector to step into some of the voids.

  6. yorksranter

    Think Defence has a really good post on the response and the recent history of the civil contingencies/UK resilience/home defence mission:

    Putting it together with the discussion above, it looks like the post-2004 ish revival of it as a function of the civil power, organised from Cabinet Office via the GOs to local authorities’ emergency planning officers, which was tested in the 2007 floods and the battle of Walham substation, ran right into Eric Pickles in 2010 with a sort of jellyish thud.

    Pickles is a long term believer in the “council that only meets once a year to hand out contracts” thing and tried to implement it in Bradford in the 80s. The civil defence stuff is precisely the sort of thing you can’t do that with – when the river moves into the kitchen, Tesco won’t save you now – and I imagine he wanted rid to make room for his ideas.

    sorry. “ideas”. and vast snack budget.

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