Cameron hints that Chris Smith could be removed as Environment Agency chair

The PM says "there will be time later on to talk about these things" when asked if he supports Smith.

As the political blame game over the floods continues, David Cameron has put Environment Agency chair Chris Smith on notice. Asked during a visit to the luckless south west whether he backed Smith, he said: "This is not the time to change personnel. Everyone's got to focus on the job in hand. I'm only interested in one thing: everything the government can do is being done to help people, help businesses, help farmers." But he notably added: "There will be time later on to talk about these things [resignations]". 

The former Labour cabinet minister is due to stand down when his term ends in July (with no chance of reppointment) but Cameron's words suggest he could be collecting his P45 rather earlier (he has said he has "no intention" of resigning). 

Smith has not handled the affair well, waiting two months before finally visiting the Somerset Levels. But it's worth reading his riposte to ministers in today's Guardian in which he rightly points out how spending cuts have weakened Britain's flood defences. He writes:

It's important, though, to realise a fundamental constraint on us. It's not only the overall allocation for flood defence work that limits what we can do. There is also a limit on the amount we can contribute to any individual scheme, determined by a benefit-to-cost rule imposed on us by the Treasury.
 
Take, for example, the highly visible issue of the dredging of the rivers on the Somerset Levels.
 
Last year, after the 2012 floods, we recognised the local view that taking silt out of the two main rivers would help to carry water away faster after a flood.
The Environment Agency put £400,000 on the table to help with that work – the maximum amount the Treasury rules allowed us to do. The additional funds from other sources that would be needed didn't come in.
 
So when politicians start saying it's Environment Agency advice or decisions that are to blame, they need to realise that it's in fact government rules – laid down by successive governments, Labour and Tory – that are at the heart of the problem.
The public, meanwhile, are happy to spread the blame equally. A YouGov poll in the Sunday Times found that 62 per cent believe Cameron has handled the floods badly (25 per cent believe he has handled them well), compared to 64 per cent who believe the Environment Agency has handled them badly. Slightly more (31 per cent) believe that Smith should remain in his job than believe he should resign (29 per cent). What is clear is that the appearance of a blame game is destructive for all sides. As Ed Miliband remarked today, "It is a disgrace that you have government ministers today pointing the finger at each other when they should be rolling their sleeves up and helping those who are affected." 
David Cameron during a visit to Goodings Farm in Fordgate, Somerset on February 7, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.