Opinion: We shed no tears over Paterson’s departure

The initial reaction chez Elder when we heard Owen Paterson had been sacked as Defra secretary was: “Hard luck and thanks for trying to do something about bovine TB. What will the new person do?”

How harsh and unfeeling, Mr Paterson might think, not only of the prime minister, but also of us. But I’m afraid that’s how it is.

I gather from the press that Mr Paterson has not taken this philosophically. Indeed, it seems he is mad as hell about it. Mrs Paterson is mad about it, too, as are their friends and supporters.

The weekend press contained reports that either Mr Paterson or his supporters have said that his sacking is a “kick in the teeth for 12 million people who live in the countryside”.

This is really quite a claim – because Mr Paterson’s party only got 10.7m votes in total in 2010 and it’s unlikely that all these voters live in the country, plus the belief that Mr Paterson would be in charge of Defra may not have been the key driver behind those votes in any case.

Furthermore, I’m not aware of any opinion polls showing 12m rural votes for the Tories since Mr Paterson took over at Defra.

So, these people are really saying “sacking Mr Paterson is a kick in the teeth for a lot of people who didn’t vote for him and aren’t going to anyway”, to which I would have thought the PM might be tempted to inwardly shrug.

I don’t know why Mr Paterson was sacked and he may well feel badly done by. However, if anyone is claiming that one individual is the spokesman for the entire rural population, I fear they would be deluding themselves – there are many shades of opinion here, on most subjects.

The harsh truth is that changes in the ministerial team at Defra do not usually attract a great deal of attention around here (a northern hill farm in the middle of nowhere). We’ve never met any of these people, of course – so our view of ministers is not personal, it’s largely based on how well we think Defra is doing, together with impressions formed of individuals appearing in the press and on TV.

Nevertheless, I will admit to having felt outraged at the treatment of a secretary of state on one occasion. That was in 2006, when Margaret Beckett was promoted to foreign secretary, one of the top jobs in government, after presiding over the disastrous implementation of the Single Payment Scheme.

The payment delays brought massive cashflow problems for virtually the whole farming industry in England, including us. It was so badly handled that it also resulted in a £75m fine from the EU. As secretary of state, Mrs Beckett was either responsible or incompetent or both.

 But clearly, to the government of the day, this was “no biggie”. Instead of a sacking or demotion, it was a case of well done, Margaret, please accept one of the great offices of state. That really was a sign from that administration that they didn’t give a stuff about farming. That really was a kick in the teeth.

So, good luck to the new secretary of state – the king is dead, long live the king and all that, and I hope you continue with attempts to sort out bovine TB.

If you can avoid a situation where the PM has to don his wellies to take personal charge of some crisis in the countryside, that may help your career as well.

Elizabeth Elder and her husband Jake run sheep and cattle on 235ha of hill ground on the Otterburn Firing Range in Northumberland.

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