IT’S astonishing how good ministers of state become on the day they’re moved on or sacked.
Rather like an obituary, most of the people they dealt with or whose lives they affected never realised how wonderful the departed was until they had gone and we could read or listen to the political obituaries.
It happened again last week when Prime Minister David Cameron, as part of the coalition government’s reshuffle, sacked Caroline Spelman, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, farming minister within that department, Jim Paice, and er, someone else within the department called Lamb.
In Scotland, a completely unconnected move, Stewart Stevenson was removed as minister for environment and replaced by Paul Wheelhouse.
At Defra, Owen Paterson replaced Ms Spelman, David Heath replaced Mr Paice and Jo Swinson was left with the Groceries Code Adjudication Bill – in plain English, try to get supermarkets to treat suppliers more fairly – allegedly high on her business, industry and skills agenda.
It seemed to me that the problem with Ms Spelman, in office for more than two years, was that she did not have much grasp of, or enthusiasm for, what she and her department were trying to do. That includes last year’s bungled effort to sell large areas of public woodland to raise money for government, followed by a U-turn.
True, that might have been Ms Spelman carrying the can for mistakes further up the chain – Chancellor George Osborne – but it affected her credibility. Yet when she was sacked we got tributes such as “served with great integrity”, “steady hand at the tiller,” “we appreciated her trips to Scotland”.
Jim Paice probably tried harder and as a former farm manager was more readily accepted by farmers – notwithstanding his talk-tough attempt a few weeks ago by telling dairy farmers that they could do more to cut costs rather than moan about market prices – but was he really “a tremendous force within Defra”?
Perhaps we shouldn’t carp too much. Any government minister apart from the top two or three departments is a small cog in a big machine, there for a relatively short time and more likely to be criticised than thanked.
Nor should it be important whether ministers and deputies in Defra, or Scottish government, are liked by farmers or not. They’re there to be respected for the job they do, not win a popularity contest.
My favourite re-shuffle story remains the one about that man of few words Clement Attlee, Labour prime minister 1945-51.
When he sacked a minister the man demanded to know why. Attlee said shortly “Not up to it” and waved him out.
We can only conclude that’s what Mr Cameron thought of Ms Spelman and Mr Paice. Being sacked from a job you’ve put a lot into must be a horrible experience and there does seem some genuine sympathy for Mr Paice. But Ms Spelman always gave the impression there were many other jobs she would rather be doing. Now she can.
In the way of things, farmers’ organisations, particularly the various national farmers’ unions, have welcomed Owen Paterson, new head of Defra, and David Heath, farming minister, with the hope that they will see all problems from a farmer’s point of view or at least a countryman’s.
Mr Paterson gets off to a good start with most of those he will have to deal with by being in favour of a badger cull – seen as an effective way to control the apparently irresistible rise of cases of TB in cattle – and is pro-hunting. He says he is “a passionate supporter of localism, free enterprise and less interference in people’s lives.”
Good only up to a point. Free enterprise only suits farmers only so far, because more than £3 billion annually of European Union farm subsidies doesn’t come into that category and the UK government believes those subsidies should be greatly reduced, if not scrapped, as part of common agricultural policy reform.
Mr Heath, an optician, as farming minister is a Liberal Democrat from a rural constituency in Somerset. But removing three, top men from any department in any organisation leaves their replacements with a lot of catching up to do before they can make effective decisions.
As for the problems any new minister faces, we can still do no better than re-run the DVDs of the Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister series that we first laughed at, in horrified recognition, more than 30 years ago.
In Scotland, the removal of the affable Stewart Stevenson – proof again if needed that a high IQ does not necessarily guarantee success in politics – as environment minister might not have the same direct effect on farmers as decisions made for England by the new Defra team.
But his replacement, Mr Wheelhouse, has had a hearty welcome from NFU Scotland and a hope that he will see things their way. Best of luck to all concerned.
The first ten days of September were the best consecutive run of harvest days this year. I wouldn’t try to guess how much grain was harvested and straw baled in the Borders and north Northumberland, but “a huge amount” would just about cover it.