Spiral Notebook: The prime minister is taking charge of the flooding crisis. Feel better now?

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COMMENT

By Giles Broadbent

Every saga has a tipping point. The Hanging Rails of Dawlish was perhaps the moment when the flooding story moved from an idiosyncratic spasm of mid-Atlantic weather patterns to a political crisis lapping at Downing Street's door.

Of course, the savage weather has lasted a lifetime for those in its grip. I have friends whose ragtag band of sandbag shifters and water watchers has become a veritable Dad's Army since Christmas - organised, dragooned, on duty - if tired, tea-sodden and fed up.

Their tipping point came when the first 4x4 sent the first bow wave over the first line of defences and the Environment Agency refused to close the road. That was several storms ago.

A tipping point like Dawlish sends a Government into panic. Before they had been happy to nudge and comment, to bray and to deflect, but a tipping point demands action, reassurance and Churchillian frowns.

The New York Times reports: "Mr Cameron this week took personal control of emergency efforts, pledging an extra $165million and vowing to do 'everything that can be done'."

Takes personal charge. Sounds like action. As if the mere turning of the prime ministerial head westwards to the stricken marshlands is enough to quell the uprising. As if his wellies were the staff of Moses sunk into the moist banks of the Red Sea.

And yet reports are emerging that pleas for flood defence action from the Somerset Levels to government before this crisis were received but, essentially, ignored.

And Environment Agency boss Lord Smith has weighed in accusing the Government of using the tragedy as a "political football". A good day to scuttle bad news.

That's the problem with "taking personal charge". Why now? Is it to take the heat off past failures, present inaction and future cuts? Is it because the knee has been jerked?

Cnut the Great has been wrongly maligned by history as the man who tried to stop the waves. In truth, he placed himself at their mercy to show his inability to defy nature and conjure miracles.

As chronicler Henry of Huntingdon writes, the water continued to rise "without respect to his royal person. Then the king leapt backwards, saying: 'Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings'."

Will Mr Cameron do likewise, when he finally gets it? Confess to his indolence, impotence and opportunism in the face of catastrophe. Or will he convene another meeting of Cobra and look implacable?

The scene of Cnut's self-inflicted humiliation was, supposedly, Hampshire, where they know from bitter experience what "empty and worthless is the power of kings" feels like. It feels like damp carpet.

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