London, Feb. 13: Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, was accused of behaving like a copycat after he cancelled his proposed trip to India hours after the prime minister David Cameron had called off his visit to West Asia.
For Miliband, this would have been his first crucial trip to India as the Labour Party leader, and along with visits to Delhi and Mumbai, he had also planned on going to the Golden Temple in Amritsar — just as Cameron had done in February last year.
But since the problems caused by flooding has become a huge domestic crisis, Cameron donned wellies and waded into the water-logged lanes and bylanes of Somerset, one of the counties worst hit by non-stop rain and bursting rivers.
Not to be outdone, Miliband also put on wellies and appeared before television cameras in the villages of Berkshire, where Mother Nature has shown scant respect for the homes of the affluent middle classes.
Even Dachet, the village parents pass while taking their sons to Eton College, is now under water.
So are the fields around Windsor where gliding swans make a pretty picture but where even the Queen is probably having problems getting to her Castle.
In parts of Britain, police have been confronted with a new crime — theft of sandbags, so necessary for shoring up homes, shops and offices.
Pat Newman, of Chaceley near Tewkesbury, in flood-affected Gloucestershire, revealed: “Every we time we put our sandbags out they are being stolen, which is the sickest and cruellest thing you can do to anybody. They’re becoming like gold dust.”
Local authority councillor Vernon Smith raged: “That’s disgraceful, it’s appalling.”
On the eve of St Valentine’s Day, some imaginative boys and girls were today declaring their feelings for each other in unusual terms: “I love you, my darling, as much as a.....sandbag.”“Money is no object,” announced Cameron, declaring the floods to be a national emergency.
This undertaking came as Wales yesterday suffered hurricane force winds at speeds of up to 174kmph. Oxford University, no less, has confirmed that the country was enduring its wettest winter for 250 years. Scientists have warned that it may take until May for the flood waters to subside, while Network Rail said it could take months before train timetables returned to normal.
Toby Willison, programme director at the Environment Agency, said a number of rivers in the South East and South West, including areas of the Thames, were at their highest recorded levels. “This is an exceptional event, it was the highest rainfall in January since 1776 and we think it is likely December, January and February will be the highest for 250 years.”
The floods were an “almost unparalleled” natural crisis, army chief Major General Patrick Sanders said, as hundreds of troops helped home owners defend their properties. The Bank of England governor Mark Carney admitted the chaos even threatened to derail Britain’s economic recovery.
Part of Britain are on “red alert”, the highest level of danger. London is protected by the Thames Barrier but in surrounding areas — Berkshire and Surrey — the river has overflowed.
Miliband reckoned he needed to be seen in Britain, rather be filmed being wined and dined and generally swanning around with the likes of Rahul Gandhi in Delhi. Miliband, who describes himself as “Leader of the Labour Party, MP for Doncaster North, husband and dad” on his Twitter account, told his followers: “Visited Purley-on-Thames to hear from residents affected by flooding this morning.”
The reaction has been unkind. “...thank goodness for that.. we can all sleep soundly knowing Ed is close at hand...,” was one sarcastic response.
Another was: “ ‘He felt he needed to be here," says aide.” Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.” Floods of the kind Britain is now facing are supposed to happen in Third World countries where the poor and the suffering accept their fate without making too much of a fuss. But in Britain tempers are fraying. When Miliband visited homes in the Thames Valley, he found himself being asked to leave a school hall in the village of Wraysbury after the wife of the Conservative deputy mayor accused him of arriving for “a photo opportunity”.
One Indian asked him a trifle rudely: “Why are you actually here?”
Perhaps he was not entirely an unbiased observer since the comment came from Alok Sharma, the Conservative MP for Reading West. Politicians realise they risk being accused of being “flood tourists” if they materialise before tv cameras in towns and villages where people’s homes are now under several feet of water.
A commentator in a newspaper summed it up: “For a start, abroad no longer matters. Foreign policy is so last week. Having unhesitatingly cancelled their trips respectively to Israel and India, David Cameron and Ed Miliband, shedding their wellingtons briefly in order to appear at Prime Minister’s Questions, showed they know where their exclusive duty lies: with the floating voters – metaphorically and, sad to say, literally – of southern and western England. For there is only one question to ask about politicians in these times of national emergency: ‘Is he (or she) having a good flood?’ ”
No doubt Miliband is well meaning but, while visiting Wraysbury, he acknowledged that it was “a difficult decision for politicians whether to visit areas like this, but I feel people have been welcoming and I can take their concerns back to Westminster.”
He was also privately advised this was perhaps not the best time to hob nob with politicians in Delhi since many of the key personalities he met could be out of power by May. And Narendra Modi, possibly the coming man, had not given Miliband, possibly Britain’s next prime minister, an appointment.