Environment secretary Thérèse Coffey has quit amid a major reshuffle by prime minister Rishi Sunak.
Coffey’s period as Defra chief – after her surprise appointment having previously served as deputy PM under Liz Truss – has been controversial, including an infamous clash with farmers over her refusal to accept the UK faced a food supply crisis earlier this year, and accusations of presiding over chaos around the government’s flagship environmental reforms.
The Defra secretary came in for stiff criticism from farmers at the NFU Conference in February over her dismissal of the impact of the supply crisis – which saw a raft of supermarkets introduce buying restrictions on certain lines – stating “we can’t control the weather in Spain”.
NFU president Minette Batters told The Grocer at the time her comments had been “really out of touch”.
Under Coffey the government has delayed plans for the rollout of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) until after the next election, despite Coffey calling for urgent talks with the industry when she came into the post, in a bid to push through the reforms.
Sunak also recently ripped up part of Defra’s environmental strategy as part of his reposition of the party, while plans for a deposit return scheme are also facing the prospect of delays or cancellation.
The reshuffle comes just weeks ahead of COP28 in the UAE, which will put focus on the world’s efforts to cut carbon emissions.
Coffey was seen as a strong supporter of net zero plans but nevertheless presided over several rowbacks in the area amid continued controversy over the department’s handling of the environment.
She has previously served as secretary of state for health and social care. She also served as a minister at Defra in 2019.
The MP for Suffolk Coastal succeeded in the role as Defra chief. The move was seen by political commentators as one of the many concessions Sunak has been forced to make to the Conservative party’s warring factions, alongside the controversial reappointment of Suella Braverman as home secretary. Braverman has also been ousted today, in a reshuffle which has seen former PM David Cameron return to government as foreign secretary.
Coffey’s replacement at Defra has been announced as former health secretary Steve Barclay
Barclay held the health role twice under prime ministers Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak.
Under Sunak, Barclay riled health campaigners by overseeing rowbacks on Boris Johnson’s HFSS agenda and signalling a government focus on weight loss drugs to help tackle obesity.
Meanwhile, public health minister Neil O’Brien has resigned from his post.
O’Brien was appointed in November, taking over as the junior health minister with responsibility for primary care from Will Quince.
Posting on X, formerly known as Twitter, O’Brien said it had “been a privilege to serve at the DHSC”, but “with so much going on locally” he “wants to focus 100% on constituency work”.
He said he had “asked to go to backbenches”, adding: “I’m also keen to see more of our two small children.”