The Government’s “hapless” handling of the flooding crisis risks causing damage in the elections as the aftermath continues to cause concern in the Westcountry.
Labour yesterday criticised a much-vaunted Downing Street summit with insurers as polling indicated dissatisfaction with the Whitehall response from voters.
But Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs praised the hands-on approach by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, who have repeatedly visited the flood-hit South West, in contrast to Labour’s botched command of the foot-and-mouth crisis in 2001, another major emergency to strike the South West.
The political row emerged against the backdrop of an analysis in The Times suggesting many flooded towns and cities visited by ministers were in marginal seats the Conservatives and Lib Dems were looking to win, so any misstep could cause damage at the ballot box.
While flood waters start to recede, questions remain over clear-up costs, insurance premiums and the future of transport links in the South West with the mainline at Dawlish still down. Engineers will tomorrow announce when the revised completion date is expected and a select committee probe next week examines the region’s vulnerable links.
Flooding Minister Dan Rogerson, also Lib Dem MP for North Cornwall, said talks with the insurance industry on getting help to those affected were “very reassuring”. Labour questioned the motivation for the meeting, claiming it was a “vacuous PR stunt”.
Michael Dugher, Labour’s Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, said: “Three hapless junior ministers booking a meeting room does not constitute a serious response to the flooding crisis.”
Mr Rogerson was labelled the “invisible minister” by one Sunday tabloid newspaper after taking a low profile amid the crisis as the Prime Minister and Cabinet colleagues were presented to national media in recent weeks.
The Somerset Levels were underwater for weeks before Mr Cameron last week announced “money was no object” to deal with flood relief as the disaster engulfed the west and south of England. But the message was undermined after Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin indicated there was “no blank cheque” for future resilience.
A ComRes poll for ITV News has found a sharp drop in the number of people who approve of the Government’s handling of the floods.
Sixty-two per cent do not think the Government and environmental agencies have responded well to the flooding an increase of 23 points since January 6. Sixty-three per cent think that the Government is emerging from the extreme weather with a worse reputation for crisis management.
But The Times piece was dismissed by many as only a handful of the marginal seats visited will see one of the parties of Government go up against Labour.
Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, an environment minister during the 2007 floods, said it is vital in a crisis like floods that the Prime Minister takes charge from the start, that the Government response is quick and effective and that ministers speak with one voice.
But he added: “None of this has happened during this winter’s floods and storms and the public have noticed.”
Andrew George, Lib Dem MP for St Ives, who accompanied the Deputy Prime Minister on a visit last to Cornwall last week, said the “political blame game is an unhelpful distraction and should be put to one side”, and argued given Labour’s handling of the foot -and-mouth crisis it shows the party has a “brass neck and a short-term memory”.
Mr George, an MP in 2001, said: “It should not be a party political issue, it should be about the country pulling together – to help those that need help.
“Rather than sit in oak-panelled rooms in Whitehall, the Government has done the right thing in pulling on the wellies and cagoules.”
Gary Streeter, Conservative MP for South West Devon, who was also in Parliament during foot-and-mouth, said: “I think since the Prime Minister has taken control it has been handled extremely well.
“But I think if you have been dramatically affected as they have in the Somerset Levels you are not going to get any credit if you are a politician.”
He said the response was much quicker than in 2001 “probably because most Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs are from countryside constituencies and Labour are not”. He added: “Aside from the pictures on television, foot-and-mouth may as well have been on another planet given the reaction it.”