15 June 2001

Beckett to put steeltrap mind to rural affairs

By Isabel Davies

WHEN Margaret Beckett, the new secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, arrived at the foot-and-mouth disease control centre in London she told reporters that she would not be drawn on future policy until she had learned more about the issues.

"It is my policy that when you move to a new department you say little until you have time to get your head around the issues," she told reporters.

"I am getting some very useful information and I will tackle it head-on when I am ready."

It was a low-key response from such a high-profile politician who has held a series of senior positions within government.

A Party stalwart who leans more to the left than centre, she was Neil Kinnocks deputy between 1992-94. Then, after John Smiths death, she briefly led the Labour Party before Tony Blair was chosen as the leader.

Following Labours victory in 1997 she became Trade and Industry Secretary, a job which she said she loved but eventually lost to the Prime Ministers close ally Peter Mandelson.

As consolation, and in recognition of her abilities, she was moved to Leader of the House of Commons – an important job but one which lacks the kudos of heading an individual department.

The move to the new, all-embracing DEFRA is therefore a good promotion for Mrs Beckett who is likely to relish the wide-ranging remit she has been given.

Getting to grips with the issues, however, could take some time. Her experience of rural affairs is believed to be limited and already there are clues that she could be on a collision course with some farmers in the course of her new job.

The new department assumes responsibility for hunting but like many in her party, Mrs Beckett voted in favour of an outright ban on hunting with dogs.

In April 2000 she also managed to upset a group of pig farmers manning their vigil in Parliament Square.

Mrs Beckett told MPs that the farmers protest at Westminster was manned by pigs working shifts and not one single pig. She told the House: "I fear you are nurturing an illusion – there may be a Winnie the pig, but there are a substantial number. The pigs in fact are working shifts."

There was a more conciliatory tone when she addressed the Women in Rural Enterprise conference at Harper Adams, Shropshire, earlier this year where she praised country women for their "independence of mind".

A hopeful sign for the future is that Mrs Beckett is obviously keen on spending time in the countryside – she lists caravanning as one of her hobbies outside politics.

But her manner may prove a sticking point for an industry used to the nice-guy tactics of former farm minister Nick Brown.

Mrs Beckett was recently described by a journalist from The Guardian as having a logical, analytical and steeltrap mind but with a "slightly chilly, uptight manner". &#42

Is Margaret Beckett the politician to put a smile back on farmers faces.