Boris Johnson was met with jeers and calls of “traitor” as he visited a flood-struck community in the West Midlands after weeks of criticism over his absence at some of the worst-hit sites across the UK.
Mr Johnson had previously been accused of being a “part-time PM” after deciding not to visit a number of towns and villages across Wales and England that were affected by the wettest February on record.
Now he has met with Environment Agency officials who worked to keep waters at bay in Bewdley, Worcestershire, after the town was inundated by the River Severn last month, forcing people to flee their homes.
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At least one onlooker shouted “traitor” at Mr Johnson, who was also seen shaking the hands of residents as he passed through the town while joking he would “get Bewdley done”. Some residents booed Mr Johnson, while others asked why he had waited until now to show up.
It comes after Mr Johnson was repeatedly admonished for failing to visit those who had been flooded out of their homes, despite doing so on the campaign trail in November when he met with angry residents of the Yorkshire village of Fishlake.
Speaking to the Commons in February, Jeremy Corbyn castigated the prime minister for not having called a Cobra meeting sooner, and questioned his motives for visiting Fishlake.
“Is he just pretending to care when he doesn’t really care at all because there’s no votes on the line at this moment?” Mr Corbyn said.
Labelling Mr Johnson a PM who “often goes awol”, the opposition leader added: “Does the prime minister agree with the Conservative leader of Derbyshire county council that he’s turned his back on the people affected by the floods?”
Mr Johnson insisted there had been “constant stream of ministerial activity”, later telling ITV’s This Morning: “[The emergency services] said to us: ‘All you’ll do is distract us and disrupt the business of helping people with the immediate crisis.’
“So what I was doing was directing operations … Obviously, I’m working around the clock on various things, as indeed is the government.”
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Speaking on the banks of the Severn where he viewed flood defences, he added that his presence could hamper efforts to help people. “What they have to do is then break off and gold command has to find somewhere to brief you, everybody has to gather. They’re diverting from their work for hours and hours,” he said.
Some Bewdley residents, however, said they were “just glad to see him here eventually” and greeted him warmly, with a crowd stopping him to ask for photos. But as he posed for selfies on a bridge in the town, one passerby told him to “do your f***ing job”.
Mr Johnson said he had discussed “the business case” for putting in permanent flood defences while speaking with the Environment Agency during his visit.
His visit came hours after Rishi Sunak, the new chancellor, confirmed this week’s budget would include £5.2bn for flood defences between 2015 and 2021, double the previous commitment of £2.6bn.
He is expected to tell MPs this funding will be used to build 2,000 new flood and coastal defences, protecting 336,000 homes.
In February, the government also pledged to spend £1.2bn on “the world’s most powerful weather and climate supercomputer” to help forecast and prepare for extreme weather events, such as the record rainfall that caused last month’s severe floods.
It came after Derbyshire county council leader Barry Lewis – as referenced in Mr Corbyn’s Commons speech – accused the government of refusing to pay for any of the £20m repairs needed after November’s floods.
“We are not very happy,” Mr Lewis said in February. “You can’t give local authorities the clear message you are going to support them and then turn your back on them.”