Back when Boris Johnson and his advisers started plotting a December election, it’s a fair bet that they stress-tested a list of possible seasonal negatives for a winter poll. They will have discussed factors such as the dark and the cold, the reluctance of older voters to answer the door at night, the effect on the student vote, and the wider preoccupation with Christmas. They will have weighed whether these problems would help or hinder their Brexit cause. And, self-evidently, they have decided that they were worth the risk.
What is clear is that they completely forgot about floods. It’s an astonishing oversight. November and December have become serious flooding months in Britain in recent years. The now politically fashionable town of Workington was almost cut off from the rest of the country by floodwater in November 2009. Yorkshire and Lincolnshire were flooded in December 2013; so were Kent and Sussex. In early 2014, the Somerset Levels were overwhelmed. In December 2015, Lancashire and Cumbria were inundated. At Christmas that year, it was Yorkshire’s turn again.
These were not once-in-a-generation events; they are now an almost predictable annual hazard of a changing climate. So it was always likely that something of the same kind might happen at this time of year. It would even have been possible to identify some of the places most at risk, with South Yorkshire high on that list. Johnson and his team should therefore have drawn up a political plan to deal with such a possibility. Yet there does not seem to have been any such plan at all.
Instead, the government was caught on the hop by the floods in South Yorkshire’s Don valley last week – in a part of the country that was swamped by swollen river water in 2007 and again just four years ago. It was days before Downing Street even tried to get a grip. Johnson first dismissed the floods as “not a national emergency”. When he finally turned up in Yorkshire today, he was met by shouts of “You took your time” and “Where have you been?”
That the latest floods took place in precisely the kind of leave-voting parts of the north that the Conservatives are targeting in this Brexit-dominated election makes the failure not just negligent but incredible. They have happened in a former coalmining part of the country that in many ways embodies, as does Workington, the left-behind anti-London resentment on which Johnson is hoping to trade. It is hard to know whether to laugh or cry. But it suggests a rare degree of campaigning incompetence that can only give hope to the Tories’ opponents.
Johnson cannot say he was not warned. He lives in this country. He knows the political stakes when the waters rise suddenly. He was MP for Henley when the Thames flooded his constituency in 2003. He was mayor of London when parts of Berkshire and Surrey adjacent to the capital were flooded in 2014. He watched as predecessors such as Gordon Brown and David Cameron battled to be seen as in control and in touch when homes were inundated and communities cut off. He certainly knows enough about US politics to understand what the Hurricane Katrina crisis in 2005 did to the presidency of George W Bush.
In 2007, Cameron was lashed by the media for flying to Africa while parts of his Witney constituency were under water. He was barracked in Yorkshire in 2012 for government inaction on flood defences. When Somerset was flooded in 2014, Cameron told staff “this is a national crisis” and insisted “nothing else that you are doing matters as much as these floods”. Cameron even sent out to Asda for black wellies, in case appearing in his green Hunter boots made him look too posh.
Either Johnson wasn’t paying attention or he just doesn’t care – possibly both. His insouciance over the Yorkshire floods may simply reflect a deliberate desire to be unDave. But it is also an aspect of a more general leadership style that, as Brexit shows, is part reckless, part careless and part useless. He promises maximum preparations against floods, but it’s all talk. This is a massive risk for him and the Tories, especially in a volatile election such as this one.
Four years ago, Cameron was blasted by the local Tory press for his superficial approach to Yorkshire’s floods. A northern powerhouse was no good if it was under water, they said. And it wouldn’t be allowed to go on happening in London, so why was it allowed to go on happening in the north, they asked. The anger underscored that floods are not just a climate issue but a northern issue, and an issue of equality. That has not changed. Jeremy Corbyn was right to highlight the north’s subordinate place in Johnson’s southern-dominated vision of Englishness.
This week’s floods expose a larger failing too. Cameron promised money for flood defences. So does Johnson, as does Corbyn. But, like the money promised for northern towns, it never quite goes where it should. The truth is that Britain is simply not yet prepared for the scale of flood hazard that comes directly from the global climate crisis. Other parts of the world are ahead on this. Singapore is building the kind of flood defences that few others in Asia can afford. But Britain could afford them too, if it treated the issue with the seriousness that the regularity of the flooding demands.
Since at least the time of the much traduced King Canute, those in authority in Britain have had an uneasy relationship with the forces of nature. Floods don’t just wash away furniture, carpets and cars. They erode authority too, and trust, as well as some of the certainties of ordered life. They are no respecters of reputations. Canute understood this. Johnson does not. He deserves to learn a hard lesson.
• Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist