UK floods test Cameron leadership

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David Cameron’s whirlwind tour of the rain-sodden south of England and impromptu Downing St press conference on Tuesday were a recognition of a dangerous fact: floods can break political careers.

After weeks of gradually rising water levels, the UK prime minister last Friday recognised that the meteorological havoc was turning into a test of his leadership and that he needed to take personal control.

For his critics, including many of those whose homes have been underwater for most of 2014, Mr Cameron is too late and should have taken charge much earlier rather than leave the response to squabbling ministers.

Ed Miliband, Labour party leader, complained on Tuesday that the government response had been too slow; residents in Somerset and the Thames Valley complained that the army should have been deployed much earlier.

Whatever the merits of those arguments, Mr Cameron has learnt the lessons of political history and has cleared his diary in an attempt to show that he will personally “lead the national response”.

Tory officials dismiss as “ludicrous” any comparisons with President George W Bush’s much-criticised response to hurricane Katrina in 2005, when he was slow to return from a holiday in Texas and to visit the disaster area in New Orleans.

Mr Cameron’s team point out that until late last week, the main focus of concern was the relatively localised flooding of several hundred homes in the Somerset Levels.

The prime minister took charge of the Cobra emergency committee last week after the situation deteriorated and storms wrecked the main rail line to Cornwall. “It wasn’t as if we suddenly woke up to it,” said one aide to the prime minister.

With flooding spreading down the affluent banks of the river Thames, Mr Cameron wanted to show the nation that he was seeing the devastation at first hand and taking control of the response in Downing St.

But some Liberal Democrats wondered why Mr Cameron took so long, given that he knows well that natural disasters can quickly overwhelm politicians.

In 2002 Gerhard Schröder, German chancellor, is credited with averting imminent election defeat by personally overseeing his government’s response to flooding along the Elbe river while his rival, Edmund Stoiber, was on his summer holiday.

But Mr Cameron’s team say that the most relevant incident for the prime minister was his own searing experience in the summer of 2007, when he was pilloried for visiting Rwanda when his own Oxfordshire constituency was under water.

While the Tory opposition leader was in Africa, Gordon Brown – enjoying a brief honeymoon as prime minister – was burnishing his reputation as a calm leader in a crisis.

Steve Morris, former head of communications at the Department of Environment, was in the “bunker” at the time and said Mr Brown fully understood the power of a media message of activity and leadership in a crisis.

“He made extensive use of Cobra – but it was as much a tool of media management as it was about operational management,” Mr Morris said.

“My impression is that there is not much of significance this government could have done differently given the amount of rain, but could they have given more of an impression of concern and activity? Yes, they probably could.”

Mr Cameron’s team deny that he has been slow to show empathy and leadership with the floods in 2014, but his decision to cancel his trip to the Middle East next week is evidence that he knows the risks the floods pose to his reputation.

“The story of you not being in the right place can take a hold very quickly, especially if you are in the wrong part of the world,” said one Tory official.

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