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UK Politics

Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Every MP did his duty – to floating voters


It was probably not what the great man intended, but suddenly Bob Dylan’s most famous words seemed spookily to the point. “...admit that the waters/Around you have grown And accept it that soon/You’ll be drenched to the bone… Then you better start swimmin’/Or you’ll sink like a stone/For the times they are a-changin’.”

And how! For a start, abroad no longer matters. Foreign policy is so last week. Having unhesitatingly cancelled their trips respectively to Israel and India, David Cameron and Ed Miliband, shedding their wellingtons briefly in order to appear at Prime Minister’s Questions, showed they know where their exclusive duty lies: with the floating voters – metaphorically and, sad to say, literally – of southern and western England. For there is only one question to ask about politicians in these times of national emergency: “Is he [or she] having a good flood?”

The Lib Dem MP Adrian Sanders complained that bookings had been lost by “tourist concerns” in his Devon constituency, “partly as a result of over-sensationalising of the crisis”. What could he mean by this dramatic charge? Surely not that every party leader of importance – including his own – had this week been fanning unnecessarily out across the stricken regions, with television crews in hot pursuit?

Sanders wanted the Treasury to allocate funds to “market the far South-west”, to “get the message across that we really are open for business,” (cliché avoidance being another casualty of the extreme weather).

But that’s not the only sense in which the old way is rapidly ageing, it turns out. Suddenly the competition is about who can spend the most money. Asked by Ed Miliband – three times – about the planned sacking of 550 Environment Agency staff in the light of his mantra that “money is no object” in tackling the emergency, Cameron began reeling off figures showing how the Coalition is “spending £2.4bn on flood defences over the four-year period between 2010 and 2014”, compared with the paltry £2.2bn which was all those skinflint socialists could muster. What’s more, he added, the Government has been “happy to make” a series of spending pledges which the Opposition “could not match, particularly not if they are committed to a zero-based budget review”.

This does seem a bit rough on poor old Labour. Having been under relentless pressure on the grounds that his party are crazy, spendthrift burners of taxpayers’ money, they announce that every penny will have to be justified before the next election, only to be accused of being tightwads.

Instead of answering the question about the 550 Agency personnel, Cameron shamelessly played the patriotic unity card. “I am only sorry that the right Hon. Gentleman seeks to divide the House, when we should be coming together for the nation.” As if his spectacularly high-profile taking charge of the crisis had nothing whatever to do with the need to avoid – so far with acknowledged success – the dreaded George W Bush Katrina moment.

Cameron was right, however, to point out that Ed Balls was, as he put it, “back in the gesticulation game”. After weeks of – mostly – self-enforced Trappist silence and statue-like calm, the shadow Chancellor was back to his old ways, including what seemed some bizarrely amiable banter with George Osborne across the gangway, possibly including comradely offers of sympathy over the flood-related expenditure demands that would now be filling the Chancellor’s in-tray in the coming months.

Asked by Labour’s Gregg McClymont why, if flood defences were so important, “did he cut the budget when he came into office?” Cameron returned to his earlier theme. He said McClymont should ask Balls whether “he has to admit to his colleagues that he cannot guarantee to match any of the spending we have announced”.

“Après moi,” Cameron seemed to be saying with Louis XV, “le déluge.”