David Cameron’s government rides into an imperfect storm

The political and economic consequences of this storm may be both enduring and profound

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When asked what he feared most, Harold Macmillan famously replied with a phrase that has since become ubiquitous when describing British political life: “Events, dear boy, events”.

In Macmillan’s case he was referring to a scandal involving one of his senior ministers, but his words will undoubtedly be echoing in the ears of David Cameron, the current British prime minister, as he works out how to deal with his own unexpected event. Just when we all thought the UK was clambering out of the gloom, Mother Nature has come along and skittled all our carefully laid plans.

At first we hardly noticed it. After all, rain and wind is a feature of daily life in the UK. But, storm after storm has roared in across the Atlantic on an endless meteorological conveyor belt, each fresh system deluging the country. So much so that it’s been officially dubbed the most extensive period of prolonged rainfall in 250 years. Whole swathes of the south of England are now underwater.

There’s something almost pitiable about seeing humanity trying to cope with such gargantuan natural forces.

The Environment Agency, the organisation entrusted to deal with such emergencies, has been everywhere in the last few days, delivering sandbags, installing pumps and generally doing all in their power to help the households – at current estimates, 5,000 and rising – whose homes and livelihoods are threatened with submersion.

As if these beleaguered communities haven’t got enough to cope with, they now have to contend with politicians wading back and forth down their high streets; each one keen to reassure anyone not too apoplectic to listen that they’re here to help.

For Mr Cameron this is turning into a genuine crisis, of the sort that he could never have envisaged back in Downing Street (neatly retitled “Drowning Street” by the popular press).

That’s because, in politics, it’s not only essential that something be done, but that something is seen to be being done – and, at least in this regard, the government has appeared woefully behind the curve.

Owen Paterson, the minister in charge of the response to the crisis, has looked, if you’ll excuse the phrase, out of his depth in recent weeks.

In the way that things can go against you when you’re already down, just as the crisis deepened, he had to retire from duty due to a detached retina that required hospitalisation and an extended period of rest.

On Friday morning Mr Cameron himself appeared live on the BBC, rebutting claims that the government response had been inadequate and insufficient, and promising to do all in his power to assist those whose livelihoods have been ruined.

He also reiterated a claim he’d made earlier in the week, that “money would be no object” when dealing with the floods. These are fine words, of course, but are also a potential hostage to fortune. With no end yet in sight to the dreadful weather, who can predict how much worse it might get and how expensive to remedy?

The one political party making capital from it all is the UK Independence Party (UKIP) – which, as its name suggests, is arguably the most parochial party in its outlook.

Its headline-grabbing leader, Nigel Farage, even proposed this week that Great Britain’s overseas aid budget be skimmed to provide the necessary funding for those in greater need in the UK.

His words may have been branded as short-sighted and opportunistic by his many critics, but the strategy has struck a chord with voters.

It’s difficult to justify the sending of economic aid to countries such as India – a nation that has recently spent heavily on its space programme – when peoples’ homes in southern England are under three feet of water and all they’ve had by way of help is a few sandbags and a visit from Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, in waders.

UKIP is a significant threat to the Conservatives in its traditional heartlands of the south of England, particularly because many of the most flooded constituencies are in once-safe Tory seats.

For now, we can only sit and wait for nature to abate, but the political and economic consequences of this perfect storm may be both enduring and profound. Oscar Wilde once wrote that “whenever Englishmen talk about the weather, I always feel certain they mean something else”. In the coming months his epithet rings is likely to ring particularly true.

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London

On Twitter: @michael_simkins