Coffee House

Philip Hammond: Politicians don’t do yes-no questions

11 February 2014

8:55 AM

11 February 2014

8:55 AM

In Westminster this morning, Cabinet ministers are looking nervously at their diaries. They’re wondering whether they’ll be the next to get the call asking them to try to smooth down the comms mess the government has made of the floods. Eric Pickles didn’t make a great go of it this weekend. Philip Hammond has just managed to tell the Today programme that politicians don’t ‘do’ yes-no questions in an attempt to avoid saying whether or not he backs Lord Smith (presumably because whatever he says, Number 10 will change its mind on the line a few minutes later). Perhaps tomorrow we’ll have Francis Maude dodging questions on the Environment Agency by giving flooded homeowners tips on sandbags. And after that William Hague being vague.

For what it’s worth, the current line seems to be that having whipped the media up into a frenzy about the demise of Chris Smith, ministers are to say nothing about him in as many words as possible:

‘This is not the time for recriminations or for discussions of who did what when. We can do that afterwards.

‘Politicians don’t do yes-no questions. I want to work with the Environment Agency, all the senior officials there, including Lord Smith, to get the best result we can for the people who are facing this terrible crisis.’


But quite aside from the spirit of timidity that leads politicians to set up so many quangos, ruling out an entire class of question really is a miserable place for a totally confusing comms operation to end up.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • rtj1211

    I’m not surprised at Hammond’s answer because the media set politicians up so often just to get a hard-on destroying someone’s career.

    It’s all about the media, not about the country, in the end.

    • starfish

      Guess it is time for tge armed forces to bail out the pliticians and quangocrats from their I ineptitude

      Meanwhile mlions of fit people continue to sit around on the dole

      • Fergus Pickering

        Millions of people continue to sit around on the dole. When they could be emptying the floods out in buckets, I suppose.

  • Nicholas chuzzlewit

    Wearing your Labour party rosette as usual Isabel?

    • ButcombeMan

      She probably gets paid to wind us all up by increasing the hits.

      The only reptile who has got anywhere near the truth is Christopher Booker.

      He is just dogged and he digs.

      I have concluded Cameron is running scared of admitting how much the EU has controlled flooding policy in the UK, for fear of UKIP gaining even more support.

  • JoeDM

    Cameroonian Tories Have no no fundamental beliefs on which to base a coherent response. What do you expect?

    • the viceroy’s gin


      Any smart politician understands that “events, dear boy, events” are always just around the corner. Your ongoing political foundation must be flexible enough to deal with those events .

      But if you’re married to the EUSSR, you have no flexibility.

      If you’re an envirowhacko and global warmingist nutter, you have no flexibility.

      If you’re avowedly determined to be detoxified and determined to be non-nasty, at least as defined by your fellow Londonistan luvvies, you don’t dare confront any homosexual in government, ever, no matter the reason, and thus you have no flexibility.

      If you’re a socialist and believe in massive government and bureaucracy, you cannot confront that bureaucracy, ever, no matter the reason, and thus you have no flexibility.

      So, in the above situation, you’re merely captive to events.

      The solution, then, if you’re a politically-braindead poshboy, is to blame everything on “the rebels”. Oh, and blame Nadine Dorries, too. That’s always a winner, in the Londonistan bubble.

  • Mynydd

    It is reported that Mr Hammond have told the people in the Thames Valley, there would have been more army personnel available if I had not sacked them.
    It is reported that Mr Maude has advised the people in the Thames Valley to store sandbags in their garage in preparation for the next flood.

  • David Webb

    Communications – not “comms”. Isabel, raise your game.

  • Trapnel

    Lack of preparation, confusion, inadequate leadership: a crisis running well beyond the ability of the authorities to get a grip.

    • Alexsandr

      actually a lack of candour about just what we can do to prevent flooding.We have an agency with people driving round in shiny land rovers. But realistically, there is little they can do about flooding in many areas.
      And anything they do can make matters worse for others.

      • an ex-tory voter

        Complete nonsense.
        If that were the case the North Somerset Levels would also be flooded. They are not simply because the main exit route to the sea for water from that area remains free of silt.
        Dredge the two rivers serving the South Somerset Levels and there would still be flooding, but nothing like the catastrophic situation they are currently suffering.

        • Alexsandr

          So how would you fix the Thames and Severn flooding?
          and if you were to dredge the Parret and Tone near Langport, would that not risk flooding Bridgwater and Highbridge? I know if they dredge my local river upstream of me then any flood pulses would be far worse and probably overtop defences.
          The point I am making is there are no easy answers, and if we do do stuff, we may well make things worse for others downstream.
          But as I have said before the EA policy of putting environment before property should have been debated before this event. A policy like that should not have been introduced by stealth.
          And we do need to stop water getting downstream so fast. That means sustainable drainage, and more vegetation. like trees and hedgerows.

          • the viceroy’s gin

            As well, there’d likely be need for some upstream water detention, and the upstream rainfall runoff would have to be studied and restricted as necessary.

          • ButcombeMan

            “the EA policy of putting environment before property should have been debated before this event”

            Policy 6 you mean

            It was, especially within the agency. That is why Smith is a disgrace. He either knew and condoned it (then avoided knowing), or he did not know and was reckless in discharging his responsibilities

          • Tom M

            “….The point I am making is there are no easy answers…”
            Are you serious?
            300 years ago the the community, with their meagre resources, decided to drain the Somerset levels for the benefit of the population. They did that then.
            Am I to understand that now in the 21st century providing flood defences in that area and yours is beyond our technological and/or economic resources?
            Let me see if I have this correct. Climate Change (not my assertion by the way) is deemed to be the cause of flooding so we fund billions of pounds to erect windmills which even if they work as planned will take hundreds of years to have the desired positive effect on the climate and then cite engineering complication and poverty as the reason for abandoning flood defences.
            They have all gone mad.

            • Alexsandr

              things have changed
              we have developed the catchment area thus increasing runoff. Part of the solution to flooding is to find ways to keep water higher up rivers.
              That’s means sustainable drainage, planting trees and hedgerows.
              Also we have to ensure we don’t make flooding worse for others downstream.
              There was a piece on our local telly last night about upton upon severn which has a nice shiny flood defence. But properties outside the defence are flooding worse now.
              Not saying dredging isn’t part of the answer. But other developments have moved the goalposts.
              You are quite right to deride the windmill arguments.

      • the viceroy’s gin

        Yes, it’s far too late now to have any impact on this situation. The failures in water management have occurred starting long ago, and the lack of public education and knowledge can’t be remedied in the throes of the heretofore unmentionable disaster.

      • ButcombeMan

        And some of our foreign aid goes on funding locals to drive around in “shiny” new Toyota Land Cruisers.

        Trying to hit a percentage of GDP for foreign aid without considering QUALITY of foreign aid, was always truly stupid.

        Thus are we led.

  • Mynydd

    What I don’t understand why did Mr Blair/Brown/Miliband/Balls only take action after Prince Charles made his comment. Then only to stand in flood waters for a photo shoot.

  • an ex-tory voter

    The quangos are not set up out of political timidity. They are created so as to allow the EU to exercise it’s legal right of control over those areas known as “EU Competencies” (e.g. environment), without the embarrassment of having national parliaments (in our case Westminster) merely rubber stamping every “directive” emanating from Brussels. Or worse still the political embarrassment of national parliaments refusing to implement the directives.

    For that reason you now see the entire Westminster elite refusing to criticise the Environment Agency for fear that the truth that the agency is not within their control will become apparent. Were the truth to be spoken the presently “docile” electorate might just take umbrage.

    • JoeDM

      Excellent point. And Cameroonian Tories are pro EU !!!

    • Ringstone

      There has certainly been a lot of mud thrown at Chris Smith, who was only taking his failed politician’s sinecure pension after all [yes that’s a disgrace, but among so many others you can’t summon up indignation any more], but none at all at the Chief Executive Paul Leinster [PhD Environmental Engineering at Imperial, ex Director of Operations at the EA].

      He’s clearly the “expert” and in charge of day to day running – but he’s totally out of the frame; is he being left alone because he’s got copies of the minutes were directives were received from Whitehall or Brussels and decisions were made as a result? There has to be a reason, our politicians usually aren’t slow to dump on others given the chance. #ineptocracy

  • OriginalChris

    Meanwhile, Farage takes the pragmatic step of pressing for some foreign aid to be diverted immediately to help deal with the flooding disaster. Petition also in D Mail, I see. What a contrast with the politicians/officials apparently dodging and ducking questions and simply stating that they are doing all they can. That seems not to be the case if interviewees on the Today programme this morning are to be believed (and they are on the ground, or rather in the water, so to speak). I believe them rather than some smooth talking politician brought in to pour oil on the water.

  • HookesLaw

    If there were not all these quangos govt depts would be even bigger.

    • Colonel Mustard

      Not if the state was rolled back. As it needs to be.

      Don’t conflate ‘government’ with a self-sustaining bureaucracy that offers lucrative taxpayer funded salaries and pensions in return for extending the remit of control over peoples lives and churning out sausage factory bad law. What we have is largely an ‘industry’ (politics) run for the benefit of its employees. Their ‘product’ is unwelcome or not fit for purpose nine times out of ten.

      • Mynydd

        Roll back the state and allow the private rail companies to provide the investment needed to build HS2 and pay for the repairs to the railways in the West Country that their trains use.

    • Alexsandr

      at least they would have democratic control. At the moment the quangos are a law unto themselves.
      and they always seem to have massively overpaid chief executives.
      Read the script for Yes minister ‘jobs for the Boys’ Might raise a chuckle, but how true!

  • alabenn

    Political cowardice is the norm now, the Conservatives are afraid to sack an incompetent Labour placeman and Labour are afraid to stand up for man in case they bring attention to all the other incompetents they have foisted on the country, the Lib Dems are seeing their cosy sinecures after their demise at the next election being washed away.
    All avoiding blame, does not make for solutions.

    • Mynydd

      My understanding is that Mr Cameron re-appointed Lord Smith as chairman of the EA three years ago. He could have said then, no more incompetent Labour placeman. He didn’t which raises the question was he chilling out at the time.

      • rtj1211

        I’d like you to provide rigorous, statistically backed evidence which proves your assertion that Labour placemen are incompetent and conservative ones aren’t.

        Yours are the words of a closed-mind hypocrite, so get doing your data gathering, statistical analyses and report!!

        • Holly

          I think Mynydd was trying to point out that Cameron could have hired someone else, but didn’t.
          My argument is why did he keep the Environmental Agency at all?

          Maybe some nice bod could REMIND Cameron what DEFRA is meant to be for.

          • Mynydd

            Thank you.

          • Nicholas chuzzlewit

            No she was not. She was simply have yet another dig at Cameron etc because she is a Labour Party troll.

        • ButcombeMan

          The incompetence and inadequacy of Smith was surely put beyond question, for all to hear, when he failed to adequately deal with the “Policy 6” issue, when confronted on the “Today” program.

          This is a man that could not even apparently be bothered to brief himself on the historical policies of the Agency he Chairs before going on national radio to answer questions about them. He has had weeks to do it.

          His failure to resign is his epitaph.

          Sacking him would be a political mistake, let him fester while the world watches. He damages Labour with every day that goes by, with him still in place.

          If Milliband had any leadership ability, he would call Smith in for a quiet chat without coffee and give him in Old Bill parlance, “words of advice”.

  • drydamol1


    Why do you think the PM’s job is so Prize Worthy ,Loyalty
    to your Country ,all the Headaches ,Critical Decisions ,Sleepless Nights and
    Daily Criticism – No the Power and Materialistic Benefits it Offers .Blair sold
    his Country & the Public down the river and ended up a Multi Millionaire

    Today a totally unquestioned MYTH dominates all Economic
    Thinking .

    This is the Myth
    that a Government’s Spending Power depends either on Raising Taxes or Borrowing
    from Big Banks .

    As a result of this Myth both the Media and Politicians
    of all Parties Peddle a Big Lie . This is the lie that the only way of reducing
    our ‘National Debt’ is through Massive Cuts in Public Spending and in

    People’s Incomes, Pensions, Public Services, Benefits etc

    In fact the real reason our Countries Debt is so high is
    because like other Countries ,it long ago Surrendered a basic National Right to
    International Bankers .This the Right of a Nation to Directly Create and Issue
    its own Publicly Created Money instead of (a) Borrowing from Private Bankers
    and (b) using Public not just to pay off ever Spiralling Interest on our Debt
    to them but also spend Trillions to Bail out Big Banks .

    Yet the truth is that if Private Banks both can and do
    Create Money from Nothing then so could States and Governments not as Debt but
    as Debt free Money and without Borrowing from Private Banks .

  • Alexsandr

    ‘Not the time’ is an old wheeze to stop talking about something in the hope the issue goes away.
    once the thames drains (it is dropping at Oxford now) and the levels drain the issue will be out of the news and then they can go on ignoring the issue again until next time.
    And if anyone blames climate change again they will deserve a hearty slap. No science has found a link between specific weather events and climate change.

    • HookesLaw

      The Thames is going up on my side of Oxford.
      Politicians are not allowed to be free with words, they are always hung with them later. In Hammond’s case the questioner only wants to stir up trouble, why should Hammond fall in?

      • Alexsandr

        I am looking at environment agency river level gauge data on their website.