Archive for the ‘Conservatives’ Category
Western Morning News – October 1, 2011
Caroline Spelman is more baffled than angry that Labour now claims to be the true party of the countryside. The Conservative Environment Secretary doesn’t use the word audacious, but it’s a good bet that’s what she’s thinking.
“To describe yourself as the party of the countryside was a bit rich given their track record,” says Mrs Spelman, breaking from penning the latest draft of her party conference speech.
“Decisions like putting up the fuel tax disproportionately hit rural areas. There was a big programme of post office closures under Labour, which hit rural areas hard. Sometimes they are the only retail outlet in a village. The loss of those was disproportionately harsh for rural communities.”
She pauses, fishing for the right words: “I just thought it was wishful thinking.”
Labour are trying to make the running on rural issues after 15 months of mixed results for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). The aborted sell-off of publicly-owned forests – for which Mrs Spelman publicly apologised – was the coalition Government’s first embarrassing U-turn. Add to that scrapping rural quangos and controversial planning reforms that have the National Trust and other well-respected bodies up in arms.
Before you know it Labour’s rural spokesman is handing out red Herefordshire apples as part of a campaign to preserve pay and conditions of fruit pickers and farm workers.
No, Mrs Spelman insists, the Tory’s crown isn’t slipping. “Not as a Conservative party, not as a coalition. The majority of our MPs live and represent rural areas. So you can see the impact of that at Defra (House of Commons) questions – our benches are full and quite honestly the Opposition benches aren’t. We have a natural strength in the countryside.”
No more so than in Devon and Cornwall, where the 16 of 18 MPs across the largely rural two counties sit on the Government’s benches. It perhaps explains why there has been major progress on key issues in the region that fall within the Defra remit. Decisive action on tackling tuberculosis in cattle in the South West – including a limited cull of badgers, which spread the disease – and proposals for a package of support to bring down sky-high Westcountry water bills, including an annual £40 million Treasury hand-out.
Where Labour “dithered”, Mrs Spelman announced this summer she was “strongly minded” to sanction a cull. Two pilot schemes are earmarked for next year – likely to take place in the Westcountry. A consultation will finish this month and the Government will make its final decision later this year. The 38 Degrees campaign group, credited with forcing the forests U-turn, is attempting to mobilise its 800,000 members against the cull. The National Farmers’ Union has criticised the group for publishing misinformation over the impact. Mrs Spelman won’t be drawn.
“I thought it was quite a significant fact that when 38 Degrees polled on this issue it came 17th in their list of concerns. It is a concern, I acknowledge that.”
Andrew George, Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives, and the party’s countryside spokesman, is opposed to controlled shooting and says many Lib Dem colleagues feel the same. Mrs Spelman, who has no Lib Dem ministers in her Defra team, insists there is no coalition split. Nick Clegg backs the cull, she says.
“Some (Lib Dems) do, some don’t. But the leadership of the Liberal Democrat party I obviously spoke to because whenever you make a decision in Government to proceed to consultation it has to be right round of all Government departments and the leaders of both parties. ”
The Tory party conference in Manchester, the finale of the season, starts tomorrow, and is set against a bleak backdrop. The global economy is faltering and the clamour for Chancellor George Osborne to unveil a Plan B is growing. Local difficulties include Conservative backbenchers bemoaning the disproportionate influence of their junior partner in Government, and remorseless Tory-bashing by even Lib Dem ministers at their own conference in Birmingham.
Mrs Spelman is sanguine. “Party conferences are party conferences. That’s part of party conference season.
“Personally I have a very good relationship with Andrew George – it was my suggestion he be a ‘link man’ for us. It works well and I personally get on very well with my coalition Cabinet colleagues.”
She is keen to emphasise the similarities, rather than the differences, between the two parties.
“Often Conservatives and Liberals agree on a lot of the policies. That’s why we don’t have a Liberal Democrat minister (in Defra). As Nick Clegg said, there isn’t very much difference at all between Conservatives and Liberals when it comes to the portfolio of environment, food and rural affairs.”
But the economy will be the focus. The Chancellor’s growth plan is not expected until November, but most expect a rabbit or two to be pulled out of the hat next week. Mrs Spelman insists policies to create jobs in rural areas will feature heavily.
“A lot of people who live in the countryside would love to be able to work there too, so as not to have to commute. The price of petrol is rising all the time. That’s beginning to be a problem if you live in a rural area and have a long commute or public transport is thin on the ground. Come November you will hear us talk specifically about rural growth measures.”
Elsewhere, Defra is about to start the inevitably tortuous negotiations over EU farming grants, and has had to slash spending on flood defences – its biggest area of expenditure. Mrs Spelman makes no apology for being among the first ministers to settle on how much of its budget was being cut, a move labelled “naïve” by Labour.
“I’m clearing up Labour’s mess. This is all fine coming from a party who left a note at Treasury saying ‘sorry, the money has run out’. Every department is having to do their bit to make sure this burden of debt is not visited upon the shoulders of the next generation. I haven’t heard Labour admit, honestly, they made that mess. Nor what they would do to clear it up.”