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Why did Owen Paterson lose his job?

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Farmers Guardian political editor Alistair Driver assesses why Owen Paterson was removed from Defra.

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Owen Paterson lasted less than two years at Defra
Owen Paterson lasted less than two years at Defra

Owen Paterson’s strengths were always going to be his weaknesses when his political fate was decided.

 

Outspoken, uncompromising and utterly committed to the cause, he was brought in after the insipid reign of Caroline Spelman in September 2012 to give to the department a bit of oomph.

 

His remit was to drive growth in the rural economy and provide strong leadership on controversial issues such as bovine TB, CAP reform and pesticides.

 

The North Shropshire MP took it all on - to use one of his favourite expressions - at ‘full bore’, pursuing the badger cull with almost an evangelical zeal in the face of vehement opposition, railing against Europe’s outdated approach to CAP reform, fighting the neonicotinoid ban and vocally advocating GM crops.

 

Nobody could have pushed harder to deliver a national cull. To say it was a policy close to his heart is an understatement – in Opposition he had asked a record 600 Parliamentary Questions on the subject of badgers and bovine TB. Many farmers will thank him for that.

 

He railed against Europe’s outdated approach to CAP reform, initially threatening to alienate the rest of Europe, the devolved administrations and UK farmers with his stance on removing direct payments.

 

But ultimately he stood up against some of the more preposterous suggestions during the EU CAP reform negotiations and has listened to the needs of the industry in implementing the reform in England.

Vocal advocate

He fought against the neonicotinoid ban, arguing the evidence base was insufficient for a ban and was a vocal advocate of the need for a less restrictive approach to GM crops.  

 

Rothamstead Wheat trials

He fought Lib Dem Ministers over renewable energy subsidy as the Tory Party threw its weight behind gas.

 

He travelled the world in a bid to open up food and drink exports markets – and repeatedly urged the industry to takes steps to reverse the gaping UK ‘dairy trade deficit’.

 

He presided over a series of crisis, from horsegate to the Somerset floods, often showing leadership but occasionally wrong-footed by sharp political opponents.

 

He may have forgotten his wellies when he visited the Somerset flood victims but they credit him with driving through a better flood prevention policy and pushing the Environment Agency in the right direction in the wake of the disaster.

 

For farmers, Mr Paterson has on the whole been seen as a supportive figure, although progress in some areas, including the badger cull – through no fault of his own, was slower than he would have liked.

Tory right

With his views on issues like Europe, gay marriage and climate change, he is also popular with the Tory right, undoubtedly a concern for the Prime Minister as he pondered Mr Paterson’s fate.

 

But for a Government less than 12 months out from a General Election, Mr Paterson had become too much of a risk as far as the Tory brand is concerned.

 

David Cameron’s cull of the ‘pale, male and stale’ Cabinet members only partially explains Mr Paterson’s demise. He had experienced a dip when his much criticised handling of the flooding crisis coincided with major eye surgery but was recently firing on all cylinders.

 

The animal welfare and environment lobbies, who he rarely engaged and often appeared to regard as the enemy, branded him the ‘worst environment minister ever’ – which only spurred Mr Paterson on.

 

His style was to never take a backward step once he had made up his mind on an issue, to make his points without reservation but sometimes also without acknowledging the other side of complex arguments. That can be a strength when it comes to getting things done.

 

But as he failed to win the arguments on issues like the badger cull and neonicotinoids in the media and, increasingly, within Government, the Prime Minister and his advisers began to fear the increasingly parodied Minister was sending out the wrong messages to the wider electorate.

 

His views on climate change in the context of the debate over the UK’s flood defences were seen as particularly toxic.

 

Mr Paterson’s agenda, it seems, is no longer as attractive to the Government and their pollsters as it once was.

 

In the end, it was largely about image.

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