Downing Street seeks to calm ministerial row

Downing Street is urging unity after reports of a clash between senior ministers over the UK's response to the flooding crisis.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles are thought to be at odds over the performance of the Environment Agency.

No 10 did not deny Mr Paterson had complained about his colleague but said both were doing an "excellent job".

The government will have to defend its response later in Parliament.

Commons Speaker John Bercow has granted Labour an urgent question to ask about the government's handling of the floods crisis while the government's latest Cobra emergency meeting will take place at 16:00 GMT.

'Get a grip'
It is not clear whether Mr Pickles or Mr Paterson, who is recovering from an eye operation, will appear at the dispatch box to defend the government's handling of the crisis at 15:30 GMT.

Labour has accused ministers of fighting "like ferrets in a sack".

"It is a disgrace that you have got government ministers pointing the finger of blame at each other when they should be rolling their sleeves up and helping those affected," said opposition leader Ed Miliband.

"The prime minister has got to get a grip on the government's response to flooding."

The escalating political row over the UK's preparedness came as river levels continued to rise along the River Thames in Berkshire and Surrey - leading to 16 severe flood warnings.

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image of Norman Smith
Norman Smith
Chief political correspondent, BBC News Channel
It is certain to infuriate those residents affected by flooding - but the floods crisis now appears to have developed into an ugly blame game among the politicians.

First Communities Secretary Eric Pickles waded into the Environment Agency and its boss Chris Smith, suggesting he should consider his position and accusing the agency of "misjudgements."

Now Lord Smith has hit back, saying his staff know one hundred times more about floods than any politician and accusing ministers of "playing politics."

At the same time, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has protested to the prime minister over Mr Pickles' bruising criticism of the Environment Agency.

And for good measure the former Floods Minister Richard Benyon has rounded on Tory MP Ian Liddell-Grainger - who described Lord Smith as a "git" - accusing him of being "silly" and "demeaning himself".

No wonder then that this morning the Energy Secretary Ed Davey publicly appealed for an end to the blame game.

What does it tell us? That the floods crisis has all the potential to turn into a serious political crisis - hence the reason politicians are already taking sides.

On Sunday, Mr Pickles - currently co-ordinating the UK's floods response - suggested the government relied too much on Environment Agency advice and "made a mistake" by not dredging the flood-hit Somerset Levels earlier.

He also gave lukewarm support for the agency, saying he would "not wear a save Chris Smith T-shirt".

The BBC understands that Mr Paterson has complained "in the strongest possible terms" to the prime minister about what he called Mr Pickles' "grandstanding".

Asked about the issue, No 10 did not deny that Mr Paterson had protested at his colleague's comments and would not confirm who would co-ordinate the response when the environment secretary returns to work.

"What needs to happen and is happening is for the government to come together," a spokesman said.

Downing Street defended the agency's handling of the crisis. "Everyone at the Environment Agency, including Chris Smith, has got an important job to do and they should keep doing it," the spokesman added.

Lord Smith has acknowledged he could have done more to make the case for river dredging last year but said he would not allow ministers to question his staff's "expertise and professionalism".

Eric Pickles: "We should have dredged... I apologise unreservedly"
"I am there to be a punchbag. My staff are not," he told the BBC News Channel, adding that he would not "take lessons" from Mr Pickles on running his organisation.

But he urged all sides to refrain from the "briefing and sniping of recent times" and focus on the "serious business" of protecting people's homes and livelihoods.

Lord Smith, who has rejected calls for some quarters to resign, said the agency's response had been dictated by Treasury rules on how much could be spent on individual flood defence schemes.

He said the body had stumped up £400,000 last year for dredging in the Somerset Levels - "the maximum amount the Treasury rules allowed us to do" - but the government and other organisations had not provided similar sums to enable the work, estimated to cost £4m, to go ahead.

"I will apologise for probably not having done enough to twist arms with county councils, district councils, drainage boards and others in order to come to the table along with us to get those funds on the table for dredging last year.

"We should have done more to persuade people".

But he said he would not apologise for the Treasury rules and the "limitations" they placed on his agency.