The arrival of Owen Paterson as Defra secretary of state seems to signal a shift to the right. But what will change at the department?
Defra saw two of its senior figureheads ousted - rather than merely moved on - in this week’s reshuffle, with secretary of state Caroline Spelman and food and farming minister Jim Paice both moved out of frontline politics.
At least one of those departures raised rather a few eyebrows. Although Spelman’s position was widely believed to be shaky - not least because of the “forest-gate” u-turn - but few believed Paice would get the chop. Farmers in particular will miss Paice, whose own farming background and strong grasp of food policy issues made him a popular choice with the farming community.
Taking over from Spelman and Paice are former Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson and former Lib Dem deputy leader of the Commons, David Heath. So as the dust settles, what can the food industry expect from the new men at Nobel House?
Much has been made of how this reshuffle represents a “shift to the right”, and fans of this theory would certainly point to Paterson as evidence of that. Early attention has focused on Paterson’s alleged climate change scepticism, but from a food point of view, Paterson’s strong EU-sceptic stance will be of more immediate interest.
The new Defra men
Paterson has been MP for North Shropshire since 1997. Key food and farming roles in opposition: shadow agricultural whip and shadow minister for agriculture
Heath has been MP for Somerton and Frome since 1997. Was Lib Dem spokesman for agriculture and rural affairs in opposition.
Heath became the first minister to use an iPad at the dispatch box in October 2011
Paterson and his wife took part in the 2011 Mongol Derby, billed as the longest and toughest horse race in the world, raising more than £60,000 for charity
In May, Paterson became the first Cabinet member to publicly oppose gay marriage
Few expect Defra to dramatically change its position on core policy issues - including EU matters - as a result of the reshuffle, but there is some nervousness (or excitement, depending on where you stand) about whether Paterson’s influence will mean the UK will take a more aggressive approach to EU food and farming matters.
The Common Fisheries Policy is an area where there is considerable appetite on the Tory right to wrestle control back from Brussels, and some will hope Defra will now throw its weight behind such efforts.
Others, however, fear too heavy-handed an approach could harm UK interests. “There is always some concern that Britain could end up shooting itself in the foot by being too radical on CAP reform and being side-lined,” says one farming source. “And the more hostile you are to the EU, the more tempted you might be to be go down that route.”
Away from Brussels, the industry will be hoping initiatives such as the Green Food Project - which benefited from Paice’s support - are continued with similar enthusiasm. “We’d certainly be keen to maintain momentum,” says the FDF’s Terry Jones.
Heath’s recent non-policy role means less is known about his current thinking on UK food and farming issues, but he shares Paterson’s scepticism towards the EU (he rebelled against the Lib Dem party line over an EU referendum in 2008) and is seen as having a strong understanding of EU institutions. Both also have strong farming credentials thanks to their rural constituencies in Shropshire and Somerton & Frome, and Paterson has shown particular interest in dairy, including the badger cull and farmer protests over milk prices.
Perhaps more importantly, there is a sense in the industry that - in Paterson - Defra has been given a bigger hitter than Spelman. Defra has been seen as too “small” a department given the size of the food sector. Many will hope that with a rising star of the Tory right now in charge, they will have a more vociferous and influential champion on their side.