The rise and rise of Owen Paterson

North Shropshire | News | Published:

The Prime Minister has just called you into No 10 to tell you that you have been promoted in the first, and potentially make-or-break, shuffle of his ministerial team, so what do you do when you leave Downing Street?

Pop into the Red Lion across the road for a celebratory drink?

Return to your old department to say goodbye to what are now ex-colleagues?

Or hare it over to your new department around the corner in Smith Square to check out the view across Westminster from your new office?

If you are Owen Paterson, MP for North Shropshire, the answer is: none of these things.

Instead, you race over to the House of Commons to chair a meeting about the future of Shropshire's railways.

David Cameron yesterday moved Mr Paterson from the Northern Ireland Office to become Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

But it was the constituency issue which came first after the PM had broken the news. The Tory MP has always put the people of North Shropshire at the top of his agenda.

From the day he took over the seat from the late, great John Biffen, he knew he had a hard act to follow and that the first rule to follow is that constituents must never be neglected.


When he finally did get around to meeting his new staff at Defra yesterday afternoon, he will have done it with gusto.

There are no half measures for Owen Paterson. He doesn't just throw himself into a task or a new job, he leaps into it like an Olympic long-jumper.

When he first entered Parliament in 1997, I used to liken him to Tigger, from the Winnie the Pooh stories.

Bursting with energy and enthusiasm, he bounded around the House of Commons – sometimes landing on other people's feet.


Like the rest of his family, he likes horses and horse riding.

But, despite nearly breaking his neck after falling from a horse 13 years years ago, he doesn't just trot around the lanes of the Welsh borders.

Last summer he and his equally adventurous wife, Rose, raced across the deserts of Mongolia on mounts they had never seen before. Bonkers or what? No half measures.

While other experienced horsemen and women fell by the wayside with broken limbs or exhaustion, they made it to the finishing line.

It was, Mr Paterson remarked at the time, one way of leaving behind his security minders for a few weeks.

When he was shadow agriculture minister, he travelled the world finding out how successful fishing nations made their catches without stripping the oceans of their livelihoods. Watch out for moves to change the Common Fisheries Policy.

When he was shadow transport minister, he travelled through Europe and North America looking at successful transport systems and policies.

Then, out of the blue, came the call from David Cameron inviting Mr Paterson into the shadow cabinet.

It was July 2, 2007, and the new man in the Tory top team called me to break the news. I was returning to London on the West Coast main line, and the mobile connection kept dropping in and out.

I thought he sounded unusually hesitant (something he disputes), but there was no doubt that he was surprised.

Here was a man from the Conservative Right with strong views about Europe, a former parliamentary private secretary to Iain Duncan-Smith during the current Work and Pensions Secretary's ill-fated couple of years as party leader.

That period might have been lonely and frustrating at times, but the Shropshire MP stood firm by his leader's side, and it proved extremely useful building contacts on both sides of the Atlantic.

Mr Paterson took on his new role across the Irish Sea with typical verve, re-establishing links with the Ulster Unionist Party, a move which hasn't proved to be electorally successful.

Following the inconclusive general election in May, 2012, he kept his Ulster job as Secretary of State in the Coalition Government, and set about trying to boost the province's economy, fighting for a reduction in corporation tax.

He also had the difficult task of publishing the Saville Report into Bloody Sunday, and he brought about a £200 million increase in funding for security.

This week's riots in North Belfast will have been deeply disappointing to him.

During his period in office he has been a staunch supporter of the Royal Irish Regiment, based in his constituency at Tern Hill.

As well as investigating fisheries during his time as shadow agriculture minister, Mr Paterson was, and remains, a campaigner for the eradication of bovine tuberculosis. He broke records by tabling 600 parliamentary questions on the issue.

As a result, he supports moves to control TB in badgers, a policy which will set him at odds with animal welfare campaigners.

"What I want is healthy cattle living alongside healthy wildlife," says the North Shropshire MP, who must be the only minister ever to have had two pet badgers, affectionately called Bessie and Baz.

Through his family background, he comes to his new post with a wide knowledge of the rural affairs aspects of the job. Regular reading includes the Farmers Guardian.

Expect some sensible input into the price of milk paid to dairy farmers in Shropshire and beyond.

There will be greater tensions between the Environment and Energy departments following Mr Paterson's appointment. He hates the electricity pylons which still march across the countryside, and he's not a fan of subsidies for wind farms and other renewables, believing energy industries should be made to stand on their own feet.

Sparks will fly between the two departments. Ed Davey should find a lightning conductor.

The new Environment Secretary is also a supporter of shale gas production, another area which will set him against green campaigners.

In his official biography on the Conservative Party website, he lists trees as one of his interests. Owen Paterson is a countryman at heart, but green isn't necessarily his favourite colour.

  • Star Comment - Owen Paterson is the correct man for job

By John Hipwood

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