Flooding fiasco: timely op puts hapless Paterson out of frame

Environment Secretary's emergency operation means trusty Eric Pickles now takes charge of flooding

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:32 ON Thu 6 Feb 2014

THE plain-speaking Eric Pickles will take control of the government’s feeble response to the flooding fiasco today – because the unfortunate Environment Secretary Owen Paterson needs emergency surgery for a detached retina.  

Paterson had been struggling with an eyesight problem for more than a week, according to a tweet from BBC political correspondent James Landale, and his surgeons said last night that he needed an emergency op to save his sight.

The operation is likely to put Paterson out of action for at least a week, but, while no-one would wish such a problem on even a sworn enemy, Paterson’s critics in the government are likely to urge him to take as long as he needs to recuperate.

Philippa Kennedy, ombudsman of The Sun, told BBC News: "It’s a very timely retreat" while Westminster wags are divided: was the detached retina caused by a black eye from an angry resident of the Somerset Levels or an elbow from David Cameron?

Whatever the truth, his enforced removal from the frontline has come at a very convenient moment for Cameron.

He made it abundantly clear at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday that he was wholly dissatisfied with the impression of incompetence given by the government’s handling of the floods. And it came only 24 hours after the Prince of Wales muttered to locals in Somerset that not enough had been done to relieve their suffering.

Cameron also announced yesterday that he would take the chair of the emergency committee, COBRA. He mentioned no names, but the strong impression was that the PM was taking personal control of the flooding issue because the hapless Paterson and the heads of the Environment Agency, including its chairman, Labour peer Chris Smith, did not inspire public confidence.

Strangely, given the later news of the emergency operation, Paterson looked fine yesterday. He was seen smiling complacently, nodding his head vigorously when Cameron announced that he was adding £100 million to the budget for the Environment Agency to cope with the flooding, including the cost of more dredging to drain the Somerset Levels.

This is exactly the sum that Labour calculates was cut from the EA budget by Paterson, who appears to have accepted the need for 20 per cent cuts in his department budget by the Treasury.

So the irrepressible Pickles will answer the difficult questions this morning, not Paterson. The Communities Secretary is likely to make a good fist of his time in the spotlight: who knows, he could become as celebrated as Labour’s legendary Denis Howell who ended the 1976 drought with a deluge of rain (in those days the wet stuff was welcome).

Pickles is a much wilier politician than Paterson, but he has some difficult questions to face - including why the famous railway line by the seaside at Dawlish, a particular favourite of Sir John Betjeman, was allowed to collapse? Who is responsible for the sea wall at Dawlish and when was it last inspected?

Cameron yesterday promised a strategic review of Britain’s resilience to climate change but that cannot be conducted by Paterson who by all accounts is a climate change sceptic.

The Dawlish collapse has also brought crashing down the government’s most potent claim to superiority over Labour – that you may not like Lord Snooty and His Pals running the country, but at least they are competent.

That has gone, as surely as the rail line to the West Country, which will take more than six weeks of shoring up to put right.

An inquiry into the government’s handling of the floods has already been launched by the Commons select committee on the environment.

And here's the twist: the committee is chaired by Anne McIntosh who was deselected last Friday in a coup by Conservative Party locals in her Thirsk, Malton and Filey constituency. 

McIntosh has announced she is going to fight the seat as an independent at the next election – so Cameron had better watch out for the brickbats when the committee delivers its report. Hell, as they say, hath no fury like a woman scorned. ·