David Cameron can’t win the next election in the next three weeks, but he can lose it. If the floods see the government forfeit its reputation for competence, then the coalition parties won’t get the credit they need for the economic recovery. As John Major’s experience after Black Wednesday showed, once a government is no longer seen as competent, it doesn’t receive any of the credit for the good things that happen on its watch.
Number 10 is acutely conscious of this and, as I say in the column this week, the whole building from the Prime Minister to the Policy Unit is now working on the government’s response. One normally level-headed official tells me that the place is ‘on a war footing‘.
There are two parts to showing that the government has a grip. The first is dealing with the floods now that they have hit. The second is showing that decisions the government has taken since 2010 haven’t made the situation worse.
I suspect the second aspect of this challenge will be more problematic for the government than the first. As Christopher Booker eloquently argues in the magazine this week, the Environment Agency’s policies have compounded the problems on the Somerset Levels. But Caroline Spelman’s decision to reappoint Chris Smith as chair of the Environment Agency in 2011 means that the coalition can’t wash its hands of the way the Agency has handled the situation.
This flooding is going to go on for a long time. Those leading the government’s response to it expect that there still be parts of the country that are under water at Easter. If Cameron gets this wrong, then it will be a disaster for him. But if he is seen to handle the crisis well, then he’ll have strengthened his claim to be the best Prime Minister on offer.