When the news of Owen Paterson’s sacking from the Cabinet was announced there was great cheering above and below ground by badgers and friends of badgers alike. It’s unseemly to take pleasure in another’s misfortune but…
His term of office at Defra was short and undistinguished – 22 months dominated by floods (where he spoke some sense but looked foolish and by then no-one was really listening to him), neonicotinoids (where he put the UK in an isolated position against most of the rest of Europe), ash die-back (which was hardly his fault), nonsense about biodiversity off-setting (where Paterson put his foot so deeply into his own mouth that he swallowed it) and badgers where he failed to implement his own preferred policy of mass culling. When pilot culls failed to meet their targets, Paterson explained that the badgers had moved the goalposts and ever since has been a figure of fun in the land.
Paterson is a classic example of the danger of sticking someone in a job just because the PM feels he represents some views in the party – Paterson wasn’t up to the job and he didn’t do it very well. If he had been more effective, the environment would now be even more damaged.
Under him, and I’m afraid to say under Caroline Spelman too (whom I respect much more), Defra’s stock has fallen in government circles. It is now a very small department which seems to appear in the news only when something goes wrong. Don’t be surprised to see Defra sliced up if the Tories get back into ‘power’ again.
The NFU did not seem to mourn Paterson’s departure but welcomed his successor Liz Truss and pointed out that she is 38 years old (Owen Paterson is 58 but that wasn’t mentioned).
The CLA shows a touch more class about the ‘hand-over’, with their President Henry Robinson saying:
“The whole of rural England and Wales will be looking to Liz Truss to set an agenda which will assure the future of a living and working countryside. It is vital that the countryside and the businesses based there are not disadvantaged by legislation which is predominantly urban focused. We hope she wastes no time in grasping the nettle on the key issues for food and farming and presents a bold vision for our industry. We would like to see her continue the good policy work started under her predecessor particularly in areas such as animal and plant health and flood management.” Really? even the Welsh Assembly Government? Maybe.
The CLA President said Ms Truss would bring undoubted qualities to the job – but he also paid tribute to outgoing Environment Secretary Owen Paterson thus:
“Mr Paterson served with great integrity. He operated in a tough climate, and took some difficult decisions. His door has been open to the CLA and he has listened to our views. We thank him for the good work he has done during his term as Environment Secretary and we look forward to working equally constructively with the new Secretary of State. [That can’t be a tough and changing climate because Paterson isn’t too sure about that].
That’s hardly a ringing endorsement, is it? The fact that the CLA can’t actually name anything that Paterson was good at (there is so much to choose from?) says it all.
But what of Liz Truss? No, she isn’t the author of the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which in any case sounds more like the obituary for Paterson’s time in office, but is, rather, the MP for Southwest Norfolk.
Ms Truss says:
“I look forward to tackling the important issues facing our rural communities including championing British food, protecting people from flooding and improving the environment.”
Well, that’s not a bad start – more mentions than the environment has got recently from Defra. We’ll see…
We will see, but Ms Truss has very little time to make any sort of impact. There are 295 days until the next general election. Let’s say 40 of those are spent campaigning. 250 days to make a difference – 250 days to rebuild some confidence in Tory environmental policy – 250 days to keep out of trouble? Tough job.
Other news: Ken Clarke hasn’t been a very obvious force for environmental good in the Cabinet (except for being a conspicuous pro-European which almost does it on its own) but who are we to know what influence he may have had behind the scenes? He now has more time to spend twitching this autumn – I hope he sees some good birds as he is the type of cantankerous, thoughtful and outspoken politician that I like (regardless of political party).
Greg Barker will be missed as a Tory who completely gets climate change – a rare bird, indeed.
William Hague has been a force for good, again on climate change. Since David Miliband became Foreign Secretary in June 2007 – over 7 years – we have had a climate change-aware Foreign Secretary – that has to be a good thing. See this speech he made, and which I highlighted in my blog when still at RSPB, in September 2010.