‘She’s not someone you easily imagine in wellies’: The challenges faced by Theresa Villiers, Defra’s new chief

Country Life's columnist Agronomes chips in on the problems that await Theresa Villiers, the new Secretary of State in charge of the Department of the Environment, Fisheries and Rural Affairs.

The new Cabinet will bring joy to the hearts of Boris Johnson’s hard-core party members. It makes no pretence at building bridges or of reflecting the broad church that has long been the fundamental nature of Britain’s two major political parties. Our new Prime Minister has hastened to lay to rest the contention that he would seek consensus and build a coalition to get a deal with the EU. Instead, he has appointed an administration dominated by dogmatists.

With dissentient voices excluded from the Cabinet table and the political closed season in most of the Continent, we can expect little action in August, but plenty of rhetoric about preparations for leaving.  The problem is that neither Government nor Opposition is overburdened with talent and Mr Johnson has taken a risk in consigning to the backbenches some of those few who are likely to inspire confidence outside his own core support.

By his exclusion — or their own preventative resignation — the Government has lost some real stars, such as Rory Stewart and Claire Perry and some very competent performers, including Damian Hinds, Greg Clark and Penny Mordaunt and, in particular, the man who was most trusted by financial markets, the solid figure of Philip Hammond. The fact that most of these names are not well known only underscores the degree to which politics has ceased to hold the public’s interest.

What of the new minister who will have most effect on the countryside? Michael Gove’s successful tenure at Defra ends with the appointment of Theresa Villiers.

She sits for a suburban seat and has a reputation for assiduity. We can expect someone who really masters her brief and has the intellectual capability to do so — she will need those abilities, as Mr Gove has so moved the agenda along that she inherits a full programme and some big promises of action.

Personally, Miss Villiers has shown herself a strong supporter of the environment. As Transport Minister, she backed low-carbon travel alternatives and supported projects to encourage Green living. She has been powerfully opposed to all expansion of airports in the south of England. She clearly recognises the seriousness of climate change, but has not yet spoken of the role of farmers in mitigation.

Indeed, there is very little in her political history that points to an interest in agriculture and she will need to work hard to convince farmers that she’ll fight for them when production aids cease if we leave the EU. She may now regret that, in her former role as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, she did not commend herself effectively to the farming community in what is largely an agricultural province. She’s not someone you easily imagine in wellies.

She’ll also have to fight off a serious Treasury threat to the £3.5 billion currently spent in farming support. Mr Johnson’s spending promises must be paid for and this is a tempting source from which to divert cash.

What’s more, almost immediately on return from the Parliamentary break, Miss Villiers will have to steer both an Agriculture Bill and an Environment Bill through the Commons. Both could become set-piece battlegrounds between conservationists and conventional farmers. In that debate, Miss Villiers has already got form as a campaigner for stricter animal welfare, as an opponent of the live export of animals and for having switched sides on the hunting ban — she now supports it.

Her predecessor, Mr Gove, gained increasing respect from both environmentalists and farmers; the new Defra Minister has the capacity to do the same, but she will have a lot of catching up to do.