THE CABINET reshuffle seems to have inflamed a very public spat between he deposed environment secretary, Owen Paterson, and Greenpeace. Claims and counterclaims, regarding burning effigies and death threats, provided the Guardian and Daily Telegraph with plenty of copy. Paterson’s removal seems to have been the most controversial, but is that because the man himself is a heretic?
Paterson was told to solve the issue of bovine TB; he was the politician to pull the trigger on swaths of the British badger population. The farmers’ friend and wildlife’s grim reaper. It was ever thus in politics: there are decisions to be made and each one will have winners and losers. Can there be a policy that results in only winners?
The former prime minister Gordon Brown’s great failing was his desire to find perfect solutions, which manifested as indecision. The coalition government has taken a different line: quickfire decisions, followed by (rather embarrassing) U-turns. So was David Cameron’s decision to put a gun to Paterson’s head made in haste?
Those close to environmental policy would argue it’s taken too long. As someone who clearly became uncomfortable when quizzed on anthropogenic climate change and an outspoken supporter of GM technology, Paterson and the eco-NGOs were destined to be uneasy bedfellows. His broadside attack on the green lobby (in his words: “the Green Blob”) in the Daily Telegraph added fuel to the flames, leaving the greenest government red-faced. But his attack, as one business blogger pointed out, also detracted from Paterson’s willingness to debate controversial issues, not least GM, food security, bovine TB and fracking.
Would previous incumbents have done the same? Some of these issues have been on the desk of DEFRA secretaries of state for well over a decade, passed to Paterson from Margaret Beckett via David Miliband, Hilary Benn and Caroline Spelman.
Elizabeth Truss is now in charge. Given her constituency, South West Norfolk, flooding is likely to be her focus, along with farmers. Within a week she was announcing a new scorecard for public-sector food procurement that could produce a £400m windfall for British producers (see page 19). On BBC Radio 4 she encouraged schools and hospitals to forgo their lowest-price tendering models and buy local. Is there money to spend? After all, there are flood defences and waste infrastructure to build too. Welcome to life at DEFRA.