Eric Pickles is a man with a problem. Parachuted into Defra to marshal the government’s response to The Floods – the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, is recovering from what is perhaps the best-timed eye operation in western politics – he finds that there is precious little he can do to command nature. As Canute, the memorable Viking monarch, so potently demonstrated almost 1 000 years ago, the waters are not to be bidden. Not even by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
For a politician, this is something of an inconvenience. In the murky waters of all that is party political, something is always somebody’s fault. Now the Labour party’s putative fiscal free-for-all is hardly to blame for excessive rainfall (haven’t we already established that that is a gay conspiracy?). And he can’t blame the Met Office: it predicts the weather, it doesn’t encourage it. So he alights upon the Environment Agency.
It would appear that the government “relied too much” on the agency’s advice that certain rivers should not be dredged. It seems that he himself caught the government in the shameful act of taking recommendations from expert hydrologists and engineers! Knock me down and call me Susan! Here’s hoping that never happens again… (It has since been suggested that dredging may not be the catch-all solution the government hoped – but no matter…)
And quite how the EA is supposed to improve the service that it offers while also dealing with budget cuts has not been elucidated. Pickles insists the EA’s alleged failings were the exclusive result of its own flawed policy, not of funding reductions from government. Either way, 500 jobs in flood risk management are still to be sacrificed on the altar of efficiency savings.
Pickles is indulging in the great political tradition of blaming the nearest person who is not oneself. It may work wonders at PMQs, but in the real world – and it’s unclear how many politicians are aware that such a place actually exists – it just makes you look like an arse. And a useless one at that.