Everyone loves a good export story, and this one was shaping up rather nicely. Less than two months after being shuffled into Defra, Secretary of State Owen Paterson was set to fly the flag for British food and drink in Paris - of all places! - this week, creating plenty of pleasing headlines about ‘les Rosbifs’ selling their superior wares to the French.
The Defra press team had certainly made Paterson’s mission to the Sial trade show a key priority, briefing the media well in advance on just why he felt supporting British food and drink companies in their export efforts was so important.
The food and drink companies themselves were rather keen on Paterson’s Paris mission too. They were looking forward to the valuable photo opportunities his visit would provide, but - more importantly - they saw Paterson’s attendance at Sial as hugely symbolic, sending a clear signal to the industry that the government was serious about backing British companies abroad.
So with expectations high, plenty of goodwill around and positive press coverage already lined up, all Paterson had to do to turn his trip to Paris into a success was turn up. And then badgers happened.
The news was delivered rather bluntly at the Diner St George - a glittering industry dinner organised by meat industry bodies Eblex, Bpex and the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board - last night. Paterson had originally been confirmed as an after-dinner speaker at the event but had been replaced at short notice with the British ambassador to France, Sir Peter Ricketts, who stood up and, without much ado, announced to a stunned room that the Secretary of State wasn’t just a no-show tonight but would not come to Paris at all because of “commitments in London”.
To say the many British producers and their representatives at the dinner were unimpressed would be an understatement. Some had even altered their plane and train tickets specifically to fit around Paterson’s planned schedule at Sial today.
The fact that Paterson’s Paris mission was scuppered by an eleventh-hour delay to the badger cull pilots won’t help the new Defra team’s popularity with farmers, who are still smarting after the exceedingly popular Jim Paice was unceremoniously sacked.
But even those further up the supply chain, who may have a less passionate interest in the culls, have had their noses put somewhat out of joint by Paterson’s aborted trip to Paris. Of course, a delay to the cull is important enough to call for the Secretary of State’s presence in London, but should Defra not at least have had a back-up plan in place? Having food and farming minister David Heath on stand-by for Sial, for example, would at least have softened the blow of Paterson’s cancellation, industry members were arguing last night. The fact the industry was left so exposed on a high-profile trade mission has caused much unease.
Yet despite the long faces in Paris, Paterson will soon get a chance to redeem himself. In November, he is to lead members of the food and hospitality sectors on an export mission to Shanghai. With the government having identified China as a key opportunity for export growth, the food industry will expect nothing short of the full support - let alone actual presence - of the Secretary of State on that trip.
As one industry executive told me after Paterson’s no-show emerged last night: “There’s a lot riding on Shanghai for all of us. If he lets us down there, he’s had it as far as the industry is concerned.”
Paterson and his team at Defra should see this as a serious warning shot.