Agriculture ministers and secretaries of state at Defra seem to change almost as often as football managers and supermarket bosses.
In football, they’re usually sacked because they have failed to motivate players to win matches – despite their huge wages. In politics, the reasons for moving ministers can be more complicated, but are seldom for the good of the departments they represent and can often be summarised under the heading “political expediency”.
A couple of examples may suffice to illustrate the point. Jim Paice, now Sir James, was one of the best-informed agriculture ministers we have had at Defra and did all he could, given the political and economic constraints imposed on him, to initiate constructive policies for our industry. Politically and agriculturally he appeared to do nothing wrong, but was unceremoniously kicked out of the job to make way for a Liberal Democrat as, presumably, demanded by David Cameron’s coalition commitments. His reward for going quietly was a knighthood, but his disillusionment has been demonstrated by his planned retirement from politics.
What do you think about this subject? Have your say on our website forums.
Owen Paterson was also well versed in the issues that crossed his desk as secretary of state at Defra and expressed views that struck a chord with many farmers. Admittedly his style was trenchant on issues such as culling badgers, climate change and genetic modification and perhaps the PM judged such opinions might lose him urban votes come the general election next May. Whatever the reason, Paterson was bundled out of office in the last reshuffle, to be replaced by a young woman – some say mainly to improve the gender balance of the Cabinet and make it more attractive to female voters.
That is not to say Liz Truss is inferior to her predecessor; merely to comment on one of the reasons she may have been appointed. She has represented the rural constituency of South West Norfolk for four years and, although she does not have a farming background, she has cultivated the natives and made a good impression on farmers. Furthermore, she has made a number of speeches since her appointment that have met with farmers’ approval. As a Norfolk resident, I had heard her speak on general matters, but first heard her live as secretary of state for Defra, when she addressed members of the Farmers Club in London last week.
She had certainly mastered her brief in short order and spoke with authority. Her key objective, she said, was to convince her colleagues and consumers of the importance of British agriculture. Farming and food are bigger than car manufacturing and aerospace combined. And she said she was determined to get the support needed to deal with volatility.
She reinforced her support for culling badgers and flood protection. On the CAP she said Defra was making the best of a bad job, but was dealing with its worst excesses. She was cracking down on red tape. And more should be done on research and GM.
So, Liz Truss is making the right noises. But the election is only months away. Nobody knows if the Conservatives will win. Indeed, the rise of Ukip could mean a government that is altogether different to what we’re used to. But it seems unlikely, whatever the result, that Liz Truss will stay at Defra. In which case, next May, agriculture could have another untried secretary of state. And I can’t help remembering what happened to Manchester United when Sir Alex retired, or Tesco after Sir Terry left.
David Richardson farms about 400ha of arable land near Norwich, Norfolk, in partnership with his wife Lorna and his son Rob.