Reshuffle leaves ‘downgraded’ Defra without a minister of state
After last year’s surprise sacking of Jim Paice as food and farming minster (and the somewhat less surprising removal of Caroline Spelman from the post of secretary of state), Noble House has once again been hit with two key personnel changes.
The Liberal Democrat food minister David Heath has been shuffled out just one year into the post, to be replaced by fellow Lib Dem Dan Rogerson, with Conservative fisheries minister Richard Benyon making way for George Eustice, also a Tory (see box, below).
Ministerial appointments are as much to do with party politics as they are with individual merit, and the received wisdom about reshuffles is not to ask why someone had to go but to focus on who they had to make room for. Nevertheless, Heath’s departure after just one year was unexpected - so much so that when Number 10 first announced Rogerson’s appointment on Monday, there was speculation Defra may have gained an additional minister.
In Nick Clegg’s letter to Heath, informing him of the reshuffle decision, there is a line saying “I am very aware of the pressures on you within Defra over the last year”, which has raised questions about whether Heath - who received his fair share of flak over controversial policies such as the badger cull and the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board - volunteered to be moved from his post. However, this seems to be contradicted by Heath’s own statement on his departure. Reflecting on his work as deputy leader of the House and, subsequently, his time at Defra, Heath tells Clegg: “I could not imagine two positions in government to which I was better suited than those in which I have served.”
However interesting such speculation is, the immediate focus for the food and farming sectors will now be to work out what to expect from the two new Defra arrivals. Neither is an entirely unknown quantity for the industry - until their appointments this week, both served on the cross-party Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee, while Rogerson is well-known to the dairy industry through his work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on cheese.
Rogerson’s precise remit has yet to be announced, but the fact that, unlike Heath, he will be not a minister of state but a parliamentary under-secretary - a more junior ministerial position - has sparked concern in some quarters that food could move down the agenda in Westminster.
“It’s quite a substantial downgrading of the portfolio,” suggests one source, who adds a junior minister might find it more difficult to get the food industry’s case heard at the all-important Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Others are less concerned. “Even if he’s a junior minister, we still have a minister for food and farming - not many industries can say they have such clear sponsorship,” says one industry executive. Unlike Spelman, Owen Paterson has also taken a much closer interest in core food and farming matters, giving the sector additional heft in government through the Defra secretary of state.
There is less controversy around Eustice’s appointment as fisheries minister (like Benyon before him, he is coming in as a parliamentary under-secretary), although his status as a renowned EU-sceptic (he once stood as a candidate for UKIP) means the fisheries sector will watch closely to see if he can match Benyon’s tact and negotiating skills in Brussels on issues such as the Common Fisheries Policy.
Although the fisheries remit will keep Eustice reasonably far away from Defra’s hottest potato - the badger cull - the fact he is in a super-marginal Cornish seat, with a majority of just 66, at a time when the cull is making headlines in the South West means he could be facing a tougher-than-expected tenure.
Shadow cabinet changes
The new Defra team will hope some respite will come courtesy of Ed Miliband’s decision to move the highly effective Mary Creagh from the shadow Defra brief to transport. Creagh scored a number of high-profile victories against Defra during her tenure, including a u-turn on Spelman’s proposed forest sell-off, and boosted her profile significantly during the horsemeat scandal earlier this year.
It is too early to second-guess what her successor, Maria Eagle (previously in transport), might bring to the brief, but given her urban Liverpool constituency she is tipped to focus considerable efforts on food banks and issues related to food poverty. On the badger cull itself, meanwhile, Eagle is expected to bring her training as a solicitor to bear, meaning Defra - and certain parts of the food and farming sectors - can expect to face more questions around the legality of the cull in the weeks and months ahead.
Meet the Defra newbies
Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth since 2010, Eustice will defend a majority of just 66 in 2015. Previously the PM’s press secretary, he ran as a UKIP candidate in the European Parliament elections in 1999. Spoke about his family’s tough experiences as strawberry suppliers to the mults in parliament last year.
Lib Dem MP for North Cornwall since 2005. Held shadow government positions prior to 2010, and was chair of the all-party parliamentary group on cheese until his appointment as minister this week. Like Eustice, Rogerson also sat on the cross-party Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee (Efra).