“General” Hammond and his troops have stopped the rot

Only a good clean up operation can save the PM's reputation, even with Philip Hammond's excellent work, writes Alistair Thompson
Alistair Thompson is MIP's Managing Director

Alistair Thompson is MIP’s Managing Director

With Parliament enjoying a brief recess, the Prime Minister has embarked on another round of visits to flood ravaged Britain.

The aim of this latest tour is to give reassurance to those affected areas.  After a sluggish start to their response, the Government is pulling out all the stops in helping to hold back the waters and, where possible, kick off the clean-up operation.

This point was driven home by Defence Secretary Philip Hammond on The Andrew Marr Show this Sunday, who admitted there had been a problem with the civil authorities accepting offers of help. Mr Hammond said the change came a couple of weeks ago when they “pushed harder” to get military commanders embedded in the so-called Gold Teams.

The implication was clear, we (the Government) had wanted to do more but it was the local bureaucrats who were slow to react. Now the PM and I are in control there will be none of these problems and we will do whatever is needed.

To underline this point, Mr Hammond went on to reveal that the Royal Engineers would be conducting an audit of the nation’s infrastructure and flood defences, compressing what should be a two year process into just five weeks. He also said that around 3,000 troops had been deployed, but another 5,000 were on standby. Expect to see more deployed over the coming weeks.

His comments highlighted two important points. Firstly, the nervousness of the Government over criticism that they were slow to react to this disaster, especially as 27 of the worst effected constituencies are Coalition held marginals compared with just two Labour seats.

These concerns will be heightened by a new ComRes polling showing 72 percent of the public think the Government is not in control of the flooding crisis.

Secondly, Number 10 feels that it has finally hit on a winning strategy. Send for “General” Hammond and deploy the troops.

Nothing it would seem is more reassuring to the British public than having troops on the ground, taking control and taking action. Certainly the media coverage has shifted in recent days, with our screens and newspapers less dominated by flooded houses and angry homeowners.

Now we see lines of soldiers, marines and sailors building sandbag walls with interviews from calm and reassuring officer types, explaining what they are doing and how they are protecting us from harm.

So, for now at least, Mr Cameron hopes to have stopped the rot. But the slick PR and the deployment of British military personnel is just one small step in solving this crisis.

The more complicated issue will be the clean-up and apportioning blame.

The clean-up operation could take months, or even years, and Mr Hammond and his troops will be invaluable. Rebuilding roads, flood defences and railway lines takes time, but having thousands of troops putting their backs into this task sends a strong message and rapidly speeds up the process.

Then there is the task of making sure  the insurance companies cough up quickly, hence today’s meeting between Dave and the chief executives of Britain’s top insurance firms.

Finally, there will be many questions to answer. Would dredging have helped? Is the Environment Agency fit for purpose? Why was Government only spurred into action when the good people of Surrey were flooded, when those in Somerset were suffering since Christmas? And interestingly, who will be the sacrificial lamb(s), fired for the initial anaemic response to the disaster?

If the PM fails to answer any of these or get the clean-up right, not even Philip Hammond and his troops will be able to save his reputation.

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Alistair Thompson

Managing Director at Media Intelligence Partners
Alistair joined MIP in 2007 having previously worked as a journalist. He is a senior Conservative member on Portsmouth City Council and former parliamentary candidate.


  1. I’m not sure where one might find a loss adjuster to determine whether Hammond or the government’s reputation can be salvaged.

    Not only has there not been a promised bonfire of the quangos since 2010, but the quangos are still there complete with there Labour placemen at the helm.

    It has taken a massive failure by the Environment Agency to focus attention on this bloated and ineffectual group of tree-hugging rent-seekers and Hammond spouting about Gold Commanders sounds like a minister sadly out of his depth and trying to play soldiers with a service he has done nothing to defend from a succession of disgraceful cutbacks.

  2. There has been a massive failure, not of the Environment Agency, but of Government.

    Three key policy decisions of this government:

    1: Change the cost-benefit rule for floood defences from 1:1 to 1:8. This meant that, without (unavailable) funding flood defences (for example on the Somerset Levels and the Sea Wall at Dawlish) were not built.

    2: Cuts to EA funding and staff, rendering them less able to provide the necessary protection.

    As Chris Smith has said, the EA can only do what the Treasury lets them.

    And finally:

    3: Changes to farming policy, meaning that the headwater or, for example, the Somerset Level’s rivers were planted with Winter-soen crops, in particular Maize. This means the ground is compacted by ploughing, and bar, so rain water just runs off straight into the river. This was compounded by the coalition removing the last government’s regulatory rerquirement for Maize to haver ground cover crop planted around it in order to trap flood water.

    It is obvious that with the length and level of the rainfall, some flooding was perhaps inevitable, but that does not distract from the failure of government that compounded the problem.

    In light of the above, dredging of rivers is an irrelevant red-herringm, as any silt removed would be very quickly replaced by the soil swept into the rivers from the upstream fields.

    It is also worth pointing out that, in large measure, the EA suceeded here. The dog that didi not bark in the night during this period of floods is extensive urban flooding: largely prevented by prior measures taken.

  3. Shame that sandbags are more of a photo opportunity than flood defence – see eg http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/8ef55f04-93f9-11e3-bf0c-00144feab7de.html

    What’s more troops/Marines aren’t sitting in barracks twiddling their thumbs, we do have a war on. If you just want manpower to shift sandbags, why not get the unemployed on the job? They could do 80% of what the Forces can in this situation, and it would be good for them.

    I’d echo Mark’s comment about the dogs that didn’t bark – unlike further west, Kent had double rainfall in both December and January, but the measures taken after previous floods seem to have more or less worked. 5,800 homes flooded across the country is not that much, nightmare though it is if you own one of those 5,800.

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