LONDON - Across parts of southern England and Wales, families were watching anxiously midweek to see if major rivers break their flood barriers. Heavy rain is forecast for counties that have already been flooded thanks to torrential downpours brought on by two by massive storms in quick succession.
A four-day deluge could turn already swollen rivers even more dangerous, forecasters and locals fear. Britain’s Environment Agency's executive director, John Curtin, said Wednesday: “We expect further disruptive weather into Wednesday and Thursday, bringing a significant flood risk to the West Midlands, and there are flood warnings in place across much of England."
But the unprecedented floods that have hit southern England, and now threatening damage further north, too, are not only wrecking homes and properties, but also the reputation of a government that was only elected into office just two months ago, say analysts.
Furious locals hit by extreme floods are slamming Prime Minister Boris Johnson for having failed to visit communities worst affected by the storms. Thousands have been evacuated. Even so, Mr. Johnson and the most senior ministers have not pulled on their waders to get out and about to empathize and console.
It is now as common on the drenched frontlines to hear the refrain, “Where’s Boris?” as it is to hear the query, “What’s the forecast?”
In the Welsh town of Pontypridd — where 600 people have been displaced — Robin Williams, 62, asked journalists: “Where's Boris? Where's the help?” Another Pontypridd homeowner, Tracey Waites, 49, told reporters, “We haven't seen anyone. There are no politicians down here helping. Where are they?”
The local MP, Labour’s Alex Davies-Jones, has dubbed Mr. Johnson “the Scarlet Pimpernel,” adding, “You can never find him in an emergency.”
For several commentators the absence of the prime minister is even more inexplicable considering this is not the first time Mr. Johnson has been slow off the mark when it comes to natural disasters and even flooding. In December, he was heckled during the election campaign for visiting belatedly storm-wracked communities in the north of England.
Mr. Johnson is also facing growing criticism for failing to convene the government’s emergency Cobra committee, a cross-departmental panel normally called to respond to a national crisis or potential one. As historic towns battled unprecedented floodwaters destroying lives and livelihoods, Mr. Johnson remained working at a government mansion in Kent with no plans to visit communities worst-hit by the storm.
A Downing Street spokesman said Mr. Johnson did not need to visit as he is being “updated” regularly.
And the environment minister, George Eustice, said the government had a “firm grip” on the situation. But those responses were being scorned Wednesday by locals affected by the floods as well as by a swelling chorus of local MPs.
Fresh off a major general election victory in December — one that is reshaped the electoral map of Britain — Mr. Johnson seemed destined for a long honeymoon period. He was king of all he surveyed and armed with a large parliamentary majority he was able finally to conclude the long-running first phase of Britain’s tumultuous exit from the European Union, securing passage in the House of Commons of a contentious withdrawal agreement, an approval that had evaded his predecessor in Downing Street, Theresa May.
Tightening his iron grip on the ruling Conservatives, he is been able without danger to purge his cabinet of potential challengers and to avoid bringing into his government from Conservative ranks other major political figures who might cause him problems.
Last week, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, resigned rather than be reappointed without the right to name his own advisers, a Mr. Johnson precondition for him to continue as Britain’s finance minister. A less secure Prime Minister would have been nervous to lose a heavyweight from his cabinet, one who could all too easily serve as a rallying point for internal party dissent, say analysts.
But the government’s handling of this week’s floods appear to have washed out Mr. Johnson’s honeymoon, bringing it to a premature close. The criticism is coming not just from his usual detractors in the opposition parties. Johnson-supportive tabloid newspapers the Daily Mail and Sun have been pointing out that the frustration is high even in constituencies that voted for Brexit and backed Mr. Johnson to become Conservative leader.
And a series of other gaffes and mishaps — as well as a likely looming bad-natured clash with the EU over future relations — has left some questioning about the competency of his government and its powers of foresight.
No-show at Munich conference
The question of where is Boris was being asked, too, in Munich last week at the annual security conference, which draws top leaders from around the World and secures the attendance of virtually all Europeans heads of government. This year’s conference featured France’s Emmanuel Macron, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, Germany’s Angela Merkel as well as Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. The U.S. was represented by a high level delegation led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
None of Britain's military or intelligence chiefs attended. Nor did Britain’s foreign or defense secretaries. Mr. Johnson had been offered a speaking slot in the coveted opening session of the conference, but turned it down. Britain only sent a junior foreign affairs minister.
At the last minute, Britain’s national security adviser, Mark Sedwill, an un-elected official, was ordered to cut short a family vacation and fly to Munich for the conference’s final session. According to Sky News commentator, Alistair Bunkall, “a small cheer went up in the media center when he was introduced.” Bunkall reported that a conference organizer told Sedwill, “It’s great you're here but it would have been even greater if others from your government were present.” Britain's absence was noticed by others, too.
Some of the blame for what commentators and Opposition MPs see as a mishandling of the political response to the floods — as well as the lack of representation at Munich — is being laid at the door of Mr. Johnson’s top strategist, Dominic Cummings, a firebrand populist who was the major tactician for anti-EU campaigners in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Cummings drew fire earlier this week for appointing as a political forecaster in Downing Street a 27-year-old who had a history of racist social-media comments, in which he’d argued black people are less intelligent than whites for genetic reasons. Amid a media firestorm the political forecaster quit. “
Cummings has been the most visible face of No 10 in the 10 weeks since the December 2019 general election,” says Anthony Seldon, a contemporary historian and author of biographies on every British prime minister since Margaret Thatcher. “He has adopted a ‘hub and poke’ model. He has tried to centralize power within No 10, over the Treasury, ministers and their advisers,” he wrote in a commentary for The Times.
Seldon says part of he problem is that Mr. Johnson’s team has yet to learn that the single-minded qualities needed to get into power are different from those required in government. Once in office, he says, prime ministers “have to be diplomats, cajoling and persuading people, and not alienating them.”