Flooding in Northern England Becomes U.K. Election Issue

By | November 13, 2019

Boris Johnson deployed extra troops to help flood-hit parts of Northern England as he tried to ensure that a natural disaster didn’t damage his election chances.

The prime minister convened a meeting of the government’s “Cobra” emergency committee on Tuesday evening, after opposition Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn accused Johnson of failing to take the problem seriously. It agreed to request military support, and offered cash grants to affected areas.

Around 1,000 properties have been vacated in Yorkshire after two rivers burst their banks. The flooding shows the danger of Johnson’s decision to hold an election in winter, when cold, wet weather adds to the list of things that can go wrong for a government during an election campaign. Although only an extra 100 troops will be involved, their presence will deliver pictures that show the government taking action.

“In the next few weeks and months the rainfall could cause flooding in many parts of the country, and we simply have to be prepared,” Johnson said after the Cobra meeting. “I know there will be people who feel that that isn’t good enough. I know there will be people who are worrying about the damage to their homes, who will be worried about the insurance situation, worried about the losses they face. All I want to say to those people is that there are schemes to cover those losses.”

While the main Conservative attack line of the week has been that a Labour government would let public spending run out of control, the floods work well for the Labour argument that the Conservative focus on cutting spending over the last decade has hurt essential services, including the agencies that protect against flooding, and deal with its consequences.

One of the electoral districts most affected by the floods, Don Valley, is an example of the kind of seat Johnson aims to capture for his Conservative Party in the election: Labour-held, but strongly in favor of Brexit. Corbyn is using the floods to make the argument to voters there that the Tories don’t have their interests at heart. In a speech Tuesday morning, the Labour leader said that had the floods hit traditionally Conservative areas in the South of England, the response “would have been a very different story.”

That’s a narrative that Johnson can’t allow to run. in 2017, his predecessor, Theresa May, tried to win the same pro-Brexit seats that he’s aiming for. She was undone by plans to use the value of people’s houses to pay for their elderly care, something that repelled the voters she was trying to reach. Those around Johnson have said they won’t repeat her mistake, but if the government appears uncaring while people are flooded out of their homes, it could have the same effect.

Photograph: Flood water covers roads and inundates houses in the Fishlake area of Doncaster, England on Nov. 12, 2019. Photo credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.

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