This is the piece I had in Saturday’s Financial Times…
Despite the media addiction to the word “crisis”, real crises for government are exceptionally rare. In the decade I spent alongside Tony Blair, I believe we had five: war in Kosovo; the September 11 attacks, Iraq; and, on the domestic front, foot-and-mouth and fuel protests. Mr Blair’s successor as prime minister, Gordon Brown, had one full-blown international crisis, the financial meltdown; and the 2007 floods, when far more homes were flooded than now but less political and media heat was raised, perhaps because of who lived in the affected areas.
My definition of a crisis is an event or situation that threatens to overwhelm you if the wrong decisions are taken. That explains why there are not many, and why this is perhaps the first for Prime Minister David Cameron.
The coalition had a very bad start but that is often the case. Looking back at our domestic crises, we were too keen to pacify departments insisting that they could cope, too slow to centralise and ensure all the necessary weight of the state was directed at the problems.
The current government’s poor early handling was exacerbated by ministers playing the blame game with the Environment Agency, headed by a Labour peer, Lord Smith, who in turn hit back over government cuts. Mr Cameron was right to call for an end to the squabbling. He should do the same now as ministers indulge in ideological argument over whether to seek emergency help from Brussels. The public just want things sorted.
As the crisis deepens power structures need to be clear, and Mr Cameron’s “I am taking charge” message was the right one. But taking charge does not mean the prime minister should become an armchair engineer taking decisions on drainage systems. That is the point of having agency experts and ministers should support, not undermine, them.
There remains a very confusing picture as to who is responsible for what and, in the world of rolling news and social media, constant basic factual information is needed from the centre. It has to be co-ordinated across national and local government, and public and private sector organisations. This is a major challenge. During the fuel protests we learnt that the oil companies were not good team players in crisis management. During the foot-and-mouth crisis it was really only when the military became fully involved that we began to turn things around.
The prime minister’s “money no object” pledge may haunt him. Once the crisis is over, there will be many claims for help. Local authorities will press for resources they have lost; and, when the blame game resumes amid post-crisis inquiries, they will say the absence of these resources hampered their efforts.
Mr Cameron pledged more money to Somerset, which might be better spent on longer-term protection schemes for East Anglia, the south coast and the north east. Treasury rules are there for a purpose: to allocate spending on a rational basis according to objective criteria. The airwaves are full of “expert opinion” setting out where money should be spent. But the task of leadership is to decide what priority flood and storm defence should have compared with schools and hospitals, for example. There is a potential backlog of schemes potentially costing billions and, for all his money-no-object claim, the prime minister knows those billions will not and should not be spent.
A common criticism of Mr Cameron is that he is not strategic, that his strengths are as a day-to-day manager of the news not a leader taking the country in a clear direction according to clear priorities. In opposition, he visited the Arctic to create a superb photo and pledge to lead the “greenest government ever”. Now, although he has denied dismissing the environmental agenda as “green crap”, he has given up on it. The climate change debate is about to be revisited and he would be wise to re-engage with longer-term strategy.
He should also beware unintended consequences. During the foot-and-mouth crisis we were slow to realise the impact of global TV coverage of burning pyres. In the US the impression was given that Britain was a country on fire and closed for business. A crisis for agriculture became a crisis for tourism. Embassies need to be integrated into the management of this crisis.
Mr Cameron likes to be out front. But he should spread the load. His cabinet is not blessed with empathetic talent but he should choose the ministers who are best at dealing with anxious or angry people and, regardless of their portfolio, send them to the worst affected areas as his eyes and ears, to absorb the problems and make sure they are dealt with. This is a role Tessa Jowell played in the aftermath of 9/11, for example, supporting the families of British victims. Perhaps William Hague, Nick Clegg and Philip Hammond could perform a similar role today.
The tone of communications becomes vital. Mr Cameron’s tone tends to the urgent and action-packed; that of Eric Pickles, communities secretary, to the blame game; and that of Owen Paterson, environment secretary, to the technical and formulaic. They should all take a look at interviews with Carwyn Jones, Wales’ first minister – calm, fact-based, empathetic but clear about what needs to be done.
At least with the fuel protests and foot-and-mouth we knew what the problems were and we were able to some extent to control the environment in which we were operating. The current situation is made worse because at issue is something none of us can control: extreme weather. So I would not wish this crisis upon anyone.
To get through it Mr Cameron should be clear about his role, and clear about the roles of others. He should resist time limits. He should not worry about how his handling of the crisis is perceived hour by hour, only focus on doing what it takes to bring it to an end. He should put special effort into the worst setbacks and the big moments of recovery. He should ensure his best people are operating on this flat out but hold a few back to plan for re-entry into “normal” life. And all of them should hold on to this important thought: it will end.