Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Is this Owen Paterson's Waterloo? Failure to deal with the flooding crisis could spell the end of his career

Owen Paterson
Owen Paterson

Yesterday as the floods across England led the news once again, Westminster journalists were told: "The Prime Minister thinks that Owen Paterson does an excellent job."

As a rule, if the Prime Minister's spokesman has to tell the press he supports one of his own Cabinet, that minister's job is on the line.

It has been a tough few weeks for Paterson, who served as Northern Ireland Secretary from 2010 until David Cameron promoted him to Environment Secretary 18 months ago.

With floods bringing misery to dozens of constituencies across the Tory heartlands, he is under pressure over whether the Government has done enough, and spent enough, to prevent them.

This week, with some homes having been under water for a month, Cameron has had to step in and take charge as the press upgraded the deluge from news to national crisis.

In the middle of this media frenzy, Paterson had to undergo emergency surgery last week to repair a detached retina, removing him from the frontline and undermining his chances of wrestling back control of the crisis.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, a much bigger beast than Paterson, was drafted in as an emergency replacement.

Media-friendly Pickles promptly attacked Paterson's department for its over-reliance on Environment Agency advice.

Pickles said Defra, and therefore Paterson, had "made a mistake" by not dredging the flood-hit Somerset Levels.

The last thing government needs in the middle of a crisis is a Cabinet-level cat fight. The fact Downing Street let one break out does not bode well for Paterson .

His people let it be known he told the Prime Minister "in the strongest possible terms" that Pickles was grandstanding.

Yesterday the situation escalated. An un-named Cabinet minister launched a full-frontal attack in a tabloid newspaper. He – or she – said Paterson had claimed for weeks to have the situation under control.

The Cabinet minister also raised Paterson's scepticism about climate change.

"He just isn't very bright," his colleague told the Daily Mail.

"Most of the people around the Cabinet table are bright, even if I disagree with them, but not Owen. He isn't climate sceptic, he's climate stupid."

It's worth pointing out that nobody at Westminster thinks these comments came from the Cabinet Lib Dems. This is a 'blue on blue' attack, designed to undermine Paterson.

The truth is that Paterson's political instincts, which won him praise during his time at the NIO, have failed him during the crisis.

When he finally visited Somerset last month, he made the fatal error of talking to the TV reporters and not local people, who then complained on TV that they had been snubbed. In the modern age, it is not enough for the Government to manage a crisis. They have to be seen to be managing it, and this is where Paterson has failed.

He appears less than empathetic to those suffering from the floods. He has backed the Environment Agency when it would have been more politically expedient to blame them. Worst of all, the Prime Minister has had to intervene and take control. If Cabinet ministers have one role, it is to keep a crisis away from No. 10.

However, well before his eye condition put him on the subs bench, some in his own party wanted him taken off the field.

Paterson is definitely on the right of the party – he spoke out against same-sex marriage, the most senior Cabinet minister to do so. He once compared groups that campaigned to ban fox hunting to the Nazis. At Environment, he approved an unsuccessful badger cull, and was then ridiculed when he claimed that "the badgers have moved the goalposts".

Paterson thinks shale gas will be a "huge windfall" for the UK and backs genetically modified crops.

To his critics inside and outside the Conservative party, he is almost a parody of the public-school-educated, horse-riding Tory toff, with unpalatable views about gays and global warming.

His climate change scepticism raised questions about his suitability for the environment brief well before the floods came.

Paterson's refusal to accept a link between global warming and extreme weather events could prove fatal to his ministerial career. The flood waters will subside, but questions about his suitability for the job will not.

For David Cameron to sack him now would seem both churlish – he is recovering from an operation – and a sign of weakness. It is also not the Prime Minister's style.

He prefers to wait for a reshuffle before throwing ministers overboard. That is what happened to Caroline Spelman, Paterson's predecessor.

She got into a tussle over plans to sell off the nation's forests. Her reasoning was sound, but the press mauled her and Cameron did not back her. She was forced into a humiliating U-turn and quietly dropped the next time there was a reshuffle.

Will Paterson suffer a similar fate?

The perception – which at Westminster is often more important than the reality – is that Paterson has turned a drama into a crisis and performed badly.

Cameron is due to shuffle his Cabinet after May's European and local elections.

By then, hopefully, the floods will be forgotten, and the story will be UKIP's threat to the Tories at the 2015 election.

Cameron was well aware of his 'woman problem' well before Ed Miliband raised it at PMQs last week.

He needs more women in his top team, if only to stop Miliband saying there are more public schoolboys than Tory females in the Cabinet.

As a privately-educated 57-year-old white male millionaire, Paterson would have been on the critical list for the reshuffle even without his recent difficulties.

There is one solution that Cameron might consider, especially as he is well-disposed towards Paterson personally.

Europe. It would be smart party management to send a right-wing Eurosceptic to Brussels as the UK's next commissioner. It might even help with the UKIP threat.

The role becomes available at the end of October, but Britain will have to nominate its choice well before then. There is a silver lining for Paterson if he is moved to Euroland – the job pays £198,000.

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