A well-known spin doctor once said that the last thing you want is a minister with his own opinions. Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Defra, must, therefore, send the Sir Humphreys of this world into meltdown. He’s been heard to dismiss wind energy as ‘useless’, but keenly supports fracking and genetically modified (GM) crops; he voted against gay marriage, tuition fees and the smoking ban, but has backed Lords reform. Refreshingly, he doesn’t talk in platitudes either. ‘He’s full of surprises and life is never dull,’ says a colleague.
Mr Paterson arrived at Defra after a Cabinet reshuffle last September. Immediately, he was up to his neck in the badger cull, followed by ash dieback, floods, Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform, the horsemeat drama and now bees and deer. When he was on the cover of Private Eye this month-wearing a butcher’s apron and carving a joint with a speech bubble reading ‘British beef is as safe as horses’-his family felt he’d made it. ‘I didn’t expect the job to be quite so busy,’ he admits.
‘Every single citizen is affected by Defra in some way. There’s an enormous volume of activity. Everyone has an opinion and the violence of the opinion is extreme. It’s a good thing I’m the sort of person who’s immune to abuse.’ Mr Paterson has a swashbuckling follow-me-over-the-top style, aided by dashing good looks and bags of charm and energy.
He’s the obvious man for the job-‘At least I actually own a pair of wellies, and keep sheep and plant trees’-although his appointment made some people choke (campaigner George Monbiot declared it a ‘war on the environment’). He’s well read, well-travelled from his time as manager of British Leather, when he visited 80 countries (he speaks French and German), and not afraid to gore sacred cows. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the revered 18th-century philosopher, is one who gets short shrift: ‘He has a lot to answer for. The idea that the countryside should just hang out and hope for the best is wrong, and, as a result, we’ve got an imbalance. I haven’t seen a peewit or a curlew around here for years. I’m clear that wildlife law should be built around management.’
As if on cue, a sparrowhawk streaks past the kitchen window and scatters his doves, and he nearly spills his coffee in annoyance. Pity the RSPB employee who recently invited him to look through a telescope at a sparrowhawk-‘ The answer was no, I wouldn’t like to, seeing as one had just eaten my last goldfinch. People are obsessed with raptors.’ We’re at his home in his North Shropshire constituency, where he keeps Welsh mountain sheep, Cochin hens and his daughter Evie’s eventers, and has planted magnificent trees in the valley below, some in memory of his late father-in-law, the Conservative minister Viscount Ridley, and of his mother. We’re surrounded by photographs of his family on horseback. There’s his grandfather jumping Becher’s, and, movingly, holding cavalry horse Sally, his companion throughout the First World War: ‘Hasn’t she got a lovely, old-fashioned head?’ Mr Paterson doesn’t hunt any more, but he and his wife, Rose, a granddaughter of Lutyens, rode across Mongolia in 2011. ‘We didn’t change our clothes for 10 days,’ he says cheerfully.
There’s an irony somewhere in that his land, in prime dairyfarming country, is also occupied by badgers, which play in the copse and dig up his lawn. As shadow spokesman for agriculture, he tabled a record 600 questions on bovine TB, so he’s nothing if not tenacious. ‘You’re talking to the only MP who had a pet badger as a child, but in October [when the cull was postponed], the situation was being portrayed as an either-or-vaccine or cull-and I was a bloodthirsty idiot. The vaccine is 10 years away and we’re heading for total costs to the taxpayer of £1 billion. We all respect the science, and the best examples of that is how culling has worked in Ireland-where the disease is at an all-time low-New Zealand, Australia and America.’
If farmers are pleased by his bullish stance on badgers and GM crops, they’re less enamoured with his views on farm payments, but he insists: ‘I would like to have a situation where decisions about food production are left to individuals and the market, but we’re not going to get to my aim in this round of CAP reform. It’s nonsense to say that we’ll end up with a non-subsidised agriculture, but people must realise that it’s public money and there’s no sympathy for pouring money into unwanted produce. There’s also a clear role for taxpayers’ money to be spent on the environment, especially in upland areas.’
He hopes a plan for environmental offsets will soothe both sides. ‘It shouldn’t be a case of build the bypass or save the bats, but, now, the two sides don’t talk. The idea is that if we have to put a bypass through woods, we try to mitigate, but if we can’t, we’ll give something back in terms of a wood, pond or meadow locally. It would let the steam out of the kettle. Developers would cooperate, as they’re getting their way, and the RSPB or the Woodland Trust will get it back in spades.’
Mr Paterson’s career in the tannery industry started in the Thatcherite era of enterprise, and he would like to reprise this feel in the rural economy. His political hero is Ronald Reagan. ‘When asked what his greatest achievement was, he replied: “I guess I ended the Cold War.” I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War and saw at first hand what Socialism did to countries-brooks running black with oil-so I see the revolution brought about by Thatcher and Reagan as an entirely creditable thing.’ Let’s hope he gets enough time in the job for a revolution of his own.
On the record
The Rt Hon Owen Paterson, 56, was elected an MP in 1997. He became Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in 2010 and moved to Defra in September 2012 (www.owenpaterson.org)
Where is your favourite place in Britain? Shropshire-I’ve never lived more than 15 miles away from Whitchurch
What is your favourite building? Lutyens’s Viceroy’s House. The greatest building never built was his Liverpool Cathedral
Book? A Dance to the Music of Time-Anthony Powell got the cycle thing so right. You do keep meeting the same people: the Defra lawyer, Charles Allen, was a friend at prep school
Music? Elgar’s Cello Concerto
Day off? Racing at Aintree
Holiday? We’ve just bought a house in the Drôme, France