The Northern Floods Underline The Dangers Of Johnson's 'Winter Election'

Paul Waugh

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There will be flood.

When David Cameron failed to fly back from Rwanda to the UK during the 2007 floods, he faced a torrent of criticism inside and outside his party. It was one of his lowest points as Tory leader, and a year later he told the Commons “most people accept that, with climate change, [floods] are likely to be more frequent.”

But despite being politically scarred by the experience, and despite his warm words on global warming, Cameron proceeded to slash capital spending on flood defences by 27% in the first year of his Lib-Con coalition.

Even after yet more flooding in the Somerset Levels in 2014, he talked of learning lessons, but no review of flood protection ever occurred. A year later, several rivers burst their banks in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Greater Manchester and he faced claims of a ‘north-south divide’ in spending to prevent it.

Today, after parts of northern England endured a month’s worth of rain in 24 hours, more than 100 flood warnings are in place. Inevitably, given that we are in a general election campaign, the water torture has again become very much a political issue. With five million people living in areas subject to flooding, that’s a hell of a lot of votes - and many in key marginals in the north.

Jeremy Corbyn tweeted his thoughts were with the family of a woman who died after being swept away in Derbyshire. And he added that there needs to be an inquiry to better protect communities from the growing risks of flooding. Boris Johnson said it was “awful to see the terrible flooding across the North of England” and thanked emergency staff and volunteers.

‌With 2007 still seared on the memory of many at Tory HQ, Johnson is very much aware that he cannot be seen to repeat Cameron’s mistakes. That’s why he made such an effort to be very visibly present when the Whaley Bridge dam partially collapsed in August. It’s also why ‘flood defences’ are listed among the infrastructure spending promises chancellor Sajid Javid has made of late.

‌The Tories are armed with statistics (since 2015 more than 195,000 homes are better protected by more than 600 new schemes). In September, Johnson’s new government announced an additional £62 million of investment to protect communities across Yorkshire, Cumbria, the North East and South East.

But Labour counters that national spending on flood defences was £808 million in the last fiscal year, a reduction of nearly ten per cent since 2015. And earlier this year Environment Agency chair Emma Howard Boyd argued that more than £1 billion a year is needed to adequately protect the UK, with the number of homes at risk from flooding set to double in the coming decades.

The Fire Brigades Union today said that firefighter numbers in South Yorkshire - hit hard by the floods overnight - have been cut by 27% since 2010 and funding by £3.3 million. It even said that the county’s high-volume pumping appliance was unavailable for a period due to staffing shortages.

The flooding could turn into an electoral asset for Corbyn. Just as the terror attacks during the 2017 election allowed him to talk about police cuts, the downpour lets him raise the issue of flood defence spending, as well as climate change itself. For Johnson, it’s a chance to show he’s a different kind of Tory PM, committed to delivering not just sympathy visits but also hard cash.

But it also puts him at the mercy of events, where one small incident could open the floodgates of criticism. It could also force him to defend the past 9 years of Tory-led austerity, rather than make the forward-looking pitch that he prefers.

‌When this ‘winter election’ was called, some felt the weather danger was the cold and snow. But an overheating planet means that in fact it is warm and very wet conditions that are more likely this side of Christmas.

The other big risk - going to the polls during a ‘winter health crisis’ - remains too. This week, Nottingham University Hospitals Trust declared a “critical incident” due to pressures on its emergency services. Other hospitals declared ‘black alerts’ over the last few weeks.

In politics, leaders often have to make their own weather. But if the actual weather (or our preparedness for it) becomes an issue in this campaign, that poses a greater danger for the PM than for Corbyn. It’s another reminder that holding a December election really is a risky undertaking. And that there will be many more floods to come, until politicians get a real grip on climate change.

  

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Friday Cheat Sheet

Nicola Sturgeon launched the SNP campaign by suggesting the price for her party’s support for a Corbyn government would be an independence referendum next year. Labour has talked of allowing one in the later years of a parliament but Sturgeon warned: “What timescale that should happen on isn’t for Westminster politicians to determine.”

Footage emerged of Boris Johnson telling business people in Northern Ireland “if somebody asks you to do that [fill out customs declarations], tell them to ring up the Prime Minister and I will direct them to throw that form in the bin.”

Gideon Bull withdrew from standing for Labour in Clacton after it emerged he used the term “Shylock” at a meeting where a Jewish councillor was present.

Laura McAlpine, standing for Labour in Harlow defended her chief campaigner after he wrote about a ‘Jewish final solution’, Labour candidate in Liverpool West Derby Ian Byrne attacked Tory peer Michelle Mone by calling for people to “hit the c**t where it hurts”.

A string of YouGov regional polls showed the Brexit Party, SNP and LibDems surging in support. The Tories were down several points but Labour down most on 2017 results. Nationally, the Tories hold an 11-point lead over Labour with YouGov.

The BBC announced it will host a live head-to-head debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn on 6 December. A seven-way podium debate will also take place between “senior figures” from the UK’s major political parties on 29 November.

Labour’s Laura Pidcock said she’d been urged to run for deputy Labour leader but said everyone should focus on the election instead. HuffPost revealed a plan for two ‘co-leaders’ to replace Corbyn if he loses on December 12.

‌Former Labour MP Chris Williamson, suspended for downplaying anti-Semitism, announced that he would be standing as an independent. Critics warned he could allow the Tories to regain Derby North by splitting the Labour vote.

Labour raised £1m in small donations in ten days, the party announced. The average donation was £26. By contrast, the Conservatives were donated £1,106,700 from just one person this year. 

 

What I’m Reading

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