Donald Macintyre's Sketch: With Owen Paterson poorly, Eric Pickles plugs the gap (not literally)

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Eric Pickles has made a valiant effort to do justice to the enormity of the floods. The country had suffered “the wettest January since George III was on the throne,” he insisted. (Since official Met Office records began in 1910, we will have to take his word for it).

And the emergency services had been “literally going through hell and high water”. About the high water there is no argument, but for all their gallantry, the claim they have been “literally” going through hell is theologically problematic.

This nevertheless underlined the scale of the “extreme weather” and, standing in for his Cabinet colleague Owen Paterson, reportedly in hospital for an eye operation, he seemed a somewhat more confidence-inspiring crisis manager. As the minister responsible for local government he was lyrical about its practitioners, saying “when we look at the television pictures of what is happening, we can always spot a local councillor, filling up the sandbags, taking care of the locality. That is what it means to be a local councillor.” Can it be long before we see television pictures of Pickles himself inserting his reassuring bulk into a crumbling sea-wall while the sandbags are filled?

Not that flooding is an ideology-free zone, of course. Part of Pickles’ pitch was that the Government was spending more money than Labour had on national flood defences. (Usually the Government complains that Labour spent too much but in times of national emergency the accusation is the opposite, obviously). And then there was “the dredging”, which the previous government had “probably made a mistake” by ending.

This was nothing compared with the charge levelled by the Tory MP for Tiverton and Honiton, Neil Parish: “I believe that we have to force the sea back and keep it out, not retreat from it, as we have done for years.” The implication was that Labour ministers had been feeble marine appeasers, content like Canute to have the waves lapping over their feet instead of showing them who was boss.

“We need a tidal sluice on the end of the Parrett, and to make sure that we dredge our rivers, such as the Exe and the Axe,” Parish added, in a timely reminder of how poetic the names of West Country rivers are.

The shadow Environment Secretary, Maria Eagle, complained that ministers were “caught out” and “took far too long to recognise” the seriousness of events. After 21 meetings of the famous emergency committee Cobra, she added: “It is no wonder that the Prime Minister became so exasperated that he put himself in the chair.” By “ministers” of course, she was referring to her opposite number Paterson, who has not had a good crisis. “We very much hope that he makes a speedy recovery,” she said. Her good wishes could not have been more sincere.