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Owen Paterson - still battling the 'green blob' one year on

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A year on from his sacking after a turbulent two years as Defra Secretary, Owen Paterson has not mellowed. He spoke to Alistair about TB, Europe, climate change and his ongoing battle with the ’green blob’.
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Owen Paterson at his Shropshire farmhouse
Owen Paterson at his Shropshire farmhouse

Owen Paterson has not mellowed.

 

A year on from a sacking which still clearly rankles – he has not spoken to David Cameron since – the North Shropshire MP’s passion in fighting for causes he believes in remains undimmed.

 

As does his disdain for the ‘green blob’ he blames for stifling progress on a number of key farming issues.

 

Uncompromising, ideologically driven and never one to take a backward step, Mr Paterson became one of the most divisive figures in British politics during two turbulent years as Defra Secretary.

 

Within weeks of his appointment in September 2012, he was dealing with the ash dieback crisis, followed rapidly by the horsemeat saga. Then there was flooding in Somerset, the badger cull – the issue which, above all else, defined his time at Defra – Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform, neonicotinoids and genetic modification (GM) and more.

 

“Plus a detached retina in four places at the height of it all – bad timing,” he added.

 

“Go on the blogs and the green groups say emphatically I was the worst Environment Secretary ever, but there are other people from very different backgrounds saying I was the best. I do not think either is right. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle,” he said.

 

Does he regret his approach? Could he have achieved more and stayed in the job longer had he been less combative? Not a bit of it.

 

Wind in the Willows view

“They [the green lobby] had had a clear run of the hen house for 25 years. I was the first person to stand up to them,” Mr Paterson said, as we sat in the typical English country garden of his old farmhouse, just metres from the Welsh border in Shropshire.

 

“I was the first Defra Secretary to live in a place like this, surrounded by countryside, brought up on a farm and having been involved in hunting.

 

“Farmers and vets are utterly exasperated with this ‘Wind in the Willows’ view of the countryside. I knew I was doing the right thing.”

 

But now, as far as the Government is concerned, he is on the outside, with little immediate prospect of a return.

 

Having been re-elected in May with an increased majority for the fifth time in the constituency of his birth, Mr Paterson had just spent the morning ‘doing lots of important local stuff’.

 

He said: “It is nice to have the time to do that now.”

 

He is thinking ahead, however. He has set up a think tank, UK 2020, which aims to generate ‘robust, optimistic, common-sense policies for when we have a really robust Government in 2020’, including on food security, energy and Europe.

 

EU debate

Mr Paterson’s profile is set to rise as the EU referendum debate hots up. He is part of a cross-party ‘exploratory committee’ of Eurosceptic MPs seeking a ‘radical renegotiation’ of the UK’s relationship with EU.

 

He wants the UK to ‘free itself from the political and judicial arrangements of the EU’.

 

“Should this not be delivered, we will be ready to fight a nationwide ‘no’ campaign," he said.

 

Mr Paterson argued the EU is ‘already leaving us to create a new country’, pointing to a recent report from the EU presidency on plans for closer banking, economic and political union, which the UK could never be a part of.

 

Describing the EU as ‘just a local electricity subs-station distributing law’ he said, rather than worry about losing influence in Europe, the UK could gain a voice on the ‘global bodies that make the world’s rules - a massive gain for agriculture’.

 

He insisted it would be able to secure new global trading deals, while retaining trading relationships with Europe, along the lines of the arrangements in place for Norway and Switzerland, and be freer to make its own policies in areas such as GM and neonicotinoids.

 

There would also be no need for ‘some idiot to take a chainsaw to CAP funding’.

 

He said: “You could continue significant support which would encourage food production – you would just massively simplify it.”

 

Beyond Europe, he was keen to ‘keep cracking on with agricultural stuff’, urging his successors at Defra, now a much more restrained department, to show more urgency in rolling out the badger cull to new areas.

 

Extraordinary hostility

He said the coalition Government ‘proved we had the right methods’ and pointed to the ‘extraordinary reductions in disease’ reported by farmers in the two pilot areas, particularly Somerset.

 

"It has really worked in Somerset. It has been an astonishing success in disease control already. Not even I thought the reduction in disease would come this quickly," he said.

 

 

badger

“I am immersed in it here. I speak to vets and farmers, who are going through very difficult times – they are extremely frustrated and want to get on with it,” he said.

 

“As the backbench MP for North Shropshire, I am absolutely fed up the political establishment does not see this as a massive disease, the biggest problem we have facing our cattle industry,” said Mr Paterson, who shot to prominence when he asked a record 600 questions on bovine TB as a Shadow Defra Minister between 2003 and 2005.

 

While he did set the pilot badger culls in motion, he expressed frustration he was unable to extend it, at least to Dorset, last year.

 

He said Mr Cameron was supportive, despite the unhelpful findings of the Independent Expert Panel, which Mr Paterson hotly disputed, but was blocked by the Liberal Democrats.

 

The policy had been compromised all along, he added. “The antis placed so many obstacles to make it fail. I cannot tell looking back whether they were inside Government, outside or both.

 

“There was this extraordinary hostility to a very simple policy which is used by every other sensible country with a problem with bTB in wildlife.”

 

He revealed his surprise to learn, ’while reading Farmers Guardian’ in Northern Ireland during his previous Cabinet role, that his predecessors intended to shoot badgers. 

 

"I thought where did this come from? It was as much a surprise to me as anyone. To be fair to (Sir) Jim (Paice) and Caroline (Spelman) they set it up but I inherited the execution of it. 

 

Pointing to the success of other nations, notably Ireland, in tackling TB through culling wildlife, he said he remained convinced the best approach was to target culling at infected setts using PCR technology, currently being developed at Warwick University.

 

Gassing would be the most effective method if its humaneness could be proved, he added. "We were doing trials on humane gases," he said.

Hunting outrage 

Mr Paterson was equally vocal about the recent move by the Scottish National Party to scupper changes proposed by Defra to the Hunting Act.

 

He said the Statutory Instrument laying out changes to the Act proposed recently by Defra Secretary Liz Truss was initially his idea at Defra. It would simply have made it easier for upland farmers to deal with pests like foxes, in line with the currently law in Scotland.

 

“It is completely outrageous – you had Scottish rural MPs basically threatening to vote to protect a more favourable regime for Scottish hill farmers than their counterparts in England and Wales,” he said.

 

“The answer is not to get furious with the Scots but to fix it so we have a regime where English and Welsh matters are determined exclusively by English and Welsh MPs.”

 

The former Environment Secretary’s views on climate change also attracted criticism during his time at Defra. The perception that he was a climate change sceptic infuriated environmentalists and was thought to be one of the factors in Mr Cameron’s view he could no longer continue in the role.

 

“What is a climate change sceptic?" he responded when the question was raised. "I perfectly accept the theory, but we have not seen an increase in temperature for 18 years. I take a practical attitude for someone who lives in the countryside.

 

“Why do we have all these crazy policies doing far more damage than this threatened damage from the theory?”

 

While he did cut the climate change adaption budget, he insisted it was ‘complete rubbish’ to suggest he slashed the flood defence budget.

flood

Pointing to the Somerset floods, he claimed one of his biggest achievements at Defra was ‘reversing this idiotic 25-year consensus’ the natural environment, including its waterways and wildlife, should not be managed.

 

"Some people blame every possible nuance in the weather in climate change. The Somerset floods weren’t caused by man-made climate change, it was man-made idiocy not keeping articfical drains clear.

 

"It was complete, total stupidity to believe you could turn the Somerset Levels into a man-made wilderness by putting a limpet mine on every pumping station.”

 

“This was one of the things I was very clear about at Defra. We were reversing this 25-year consensus, this idiotic view that there was some Rousseau-style paradise where you let everything hang out. You have to manage the waterways and you have to manage the wildlife.”

Flood defence

 

The floods saw one of his most infamous moments, when the world’s media revelled in his arrival at a flood site without his wellington boots. It was rivalled only by his ‘badgers moving the goalpost’ quote in a television interview, which he said prompted a ‘rather jolly app I had great fun playing’.

 

But there was much worse. “One of my great facts is I had more death threats at Defra than I had in Northern Ireland [his previous Cabinet role].”

 

The opprobrium levelled at Mr Paterson only made him more determined to stick to his guns. “I did not give a damn about it, which is why they were annoyed at me. I laughed at them, which drove them absolutely Tonto."

 

Mr Paterson blamed his sacking, flippantly perhaps, on having the ‘wrong chromosones’ – a reference to the influx of women to the Cabinet, including to his former post, in last year’s reshuffle – rather than any difficulties he might have caused his on with his views and approach.

 

There might be a lingering regret that he left the Defra post prematurely with much unfinished business outstanding. But there is no suggestion he would do anything differently again if he had the chance.

Soon after his sacking, he wrote an article coining the phrase ‘the green blob’, a reference to the ‘self-serving tangled triangle of unelected busy bodies’ he spent so much time at loggerheads with.

 

“I went to a Halloween party after that and people were dressed as the green blob. So my greatest achievements were ‘moving the goalposts’ and the green blob,” he concluded the interview with a typical flourish.

Owen Paterson

  • Born in Whitchurch, Shropshire, in 1956 and grew up on a farm
  • Read history at Cambridge University before joining family leather business
  • President of the European Tanners Confederation from 1996 to 1998
  • Became Conservative MP for North Shropshire in 1997
  • Asked 600 questions on bovine TB as Shadow Defra Minister from 2003 to 2005
  • Appointed Northern Ireland Secretary in May 2010; moved to Defra Secretary in September 2012; sacked in July 2014
  • With his wife, Rose, completed a 1,000km charity horse trek across Mongolia in 2011

 

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