Finally, a politician admits it: ‘We don’t do yes or no questions’

By staff

There was confirmation from the horse's mouth today of politicians' inability to give straight answers to questions, in an admission which will appeal to anyone who has ever been frustrated by ministers' performance on TV.

Asked repeatedly whether he would back Lord Smith as chairman of the Environment Agency this morning, defence secretary Phillip Hammond admitted: "Politicians don't do yes or no questions".

The admission came as Hammond responded to concerns that ministers were becoming embroiled in 'blue-on-blue' attacks on ministerial colleagues in a bid to dodge responsible for a lacklustre response to recent flooding.

Communities secretary Eric Pickles, who took over responsibility for the flooding emergency while environment secretary Owen Paterson had an operation on a detached retina, attacked the competence of the Environment Agency over the weekend.

He also apologised for decisions taken by Paterson, in a move which saw a tit-for-tat retaliation from allies of the environment secretary.

David Cameron tired of his feuding Cabinet ministers and sent out Hammond this morning, as a Cabinet secretary whose local community was affected, to do a round of media interviews and visit affected areas.

Hammond tried to get out from under the political row and address the practicalities of the flood response, but when asked repeatedly on the BBC's Today programme whether he supported the chairman of the Environment Agency he refused to do so.

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

Asked again to support Lord Smith, he added: "Politicians don't do yes or 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 crisis."

Speaking later on BBC News he said: "I don't want to spend the time now in the middle of this crisis recriminating and finger pointing.

"It would be a great disservice for people who are facing flood waters lapping around the threshold of their houses to spend our time now arguing about what feel like rather esoteric questions."

The Environment Agency's board lashed out at Pickle's comments over the weekend and threw its weight behind Lord Smith.

In a letter to staff, it said: "We have been deeply concerned about the recent campaign of criticism, particularly around the handling of flooding in Somerset.

"We think this criticism is ill-informed and unfair – and we particularly deplore the personal nature of some of it.

"We fear it can only have the effect of undermining public confidence in the agency, our chairman – whom we fully support – our managers and our staff, and belittling the work that you do.

"This is wrong and very unhelpful at a time when we are all working hard to minimise the impact of extreme weather."

The flooding – and a perceived lacklustre response from government – is increasingly turning into a dangerous political issue for ministers, who are keen to show they are on the front foot as more areas are affected.

David Cameron is in Dawlish on the Devon coast today, where a storm last week washed away sections of the seawall, leaving a railway dangling over the sea.