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UK Politics

Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Put-upon Eric Pickles appears out of his depth over flooding comments


Eric Pickles was sad. While he was trying to get on with ordering “sandbank programmes” here, deploying the Army there, critics on the opposition benches were making “silly party political points”, and indulging in a “rather pathetic game of ‘who’s to blame?’”.

This was something he would never do, of course. “It is entirely wrong for you to suggest… that I have issued even the slightest criticism of the marvellous workforce of the Environment Agency,” he rebuked the shadow Environment Secretary Maria Eagle. His admiration for the Agency’s work “exceeds no one”.

And is apparently brand new, since on Sunday he excused ministerial errors by saying “we perhaps relied too much on the Environment Agency’s advice” and that “we thought we were dealing with experts.” That had reportedly so enraged the Environment Secretary that he had written to Downing Street to complain.

But that was OK because he and Owen Paterson were “peas in a pod, brothers from a different mother.” (This was a surprising turn of phrase since it’s normally used by rather hipper dudes than the corpulent Communities Secretary, as in “Yo, brother from a different mother, what’s happenin?”) He was merely the “custodian of [Paterson’s] wishes.” For the sake of Paterson’s recovery, you hope he wasn’t watching this nonsense from his sickbed.     

After a promsing-ish start on Thursday, this was not Pickles’ finest hour. His casual, bluff, and occasionally facetious approach is not ideal for a national emergency. Eschewing standard ministerial practice, he did not take any notes during the barrage of questions asked by Ms Eagle, who had dragged him to the Commons. But since he wasn’t especially keen on answering them, this was hardly surprising.


His bedside manner with the coalition’s anxious backbenchers consists of  praising the physical or historic attributes of their stricken constituencies. The “beautiful town of Bradford Upon Avon” or “Brunel’s railway” through Dawlish (now wrecked) or the “beautiful part of the country” that is Tory MP Nick Gibb’s base of Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, he drooled, as if he was an English Tourist Board guide.

Anyway, “I’m not entirely clear what we get out of this afternoon,” he said a little tetchily at one point. Tory MP Nicholas Soames tried to elevate the tone  by inviting him to agree that the “unstoppable force of nature humbles us all.” Pickles said he did, but you weren’t quite sure he meant it.