Caroline Spelman: Her curtains are shabby, but her axe is sharp

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has efficiently identified cuts while other ministers dither. And yet, she won't take a position on wheelie bins. Matt Chorley meets Caroline Spelman

Standing at her office window, the Environment Secretary is suddenly embarrassed. "Don't look too closely at the curtains," she says while posing for photographs. "They are falling apart." From a distance the floor-to-ceiling drapes, in a faded blue, seem in good order but up close the stray threads and moth holes are clearer. Without missing a beat, Caroline Spelman recalls the coalition's "make do and mend" philosophy, which will get a thorough airing at the Conservative Party conference this week. Quaffing champagne has again been banned, in recognition of these tough times.

Mrs Spelman has a good claim to be the Miss Goody Two-Shoes of George Osborne's spending review, reaching a settlement with the Treasury early to become one of the first ministers to join the star chamber sitting in judgement on struggling colleagues. She makes taking the axe to her £2.4bn budget sound remarkably easy.

"Look, who wants to make cuts? It's not anyone's idea of fun, but it's unavoidable. We all knew when we were in opposition that we were going to have to make savings. We did our best calculation as to what the black hole was at the time. When we got here we found it was a bit deeper than we thought, but we all knew we were going to have to make savings that were of this order."

What they did not know was that they would be making them with Lib Dem ministers in government, though not in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs because, Mrs Spelman says, the two parties' policies were so similar.

She claims good working relations between ministers and officials – not always a hallmark of Defra under Labour – helped to secure a deal on cuts quickly. Several times she insists that she "can't give any of the detail", but civil servants privately suggest any cut of less than 33 per cent will be a victory after being told to prepare for between 25 and 40 per cent. "Defra is recognised by the Treasury as being a comparatively lean department," she says. "The essence of the terrible mess we are having to clear up after Labour is that it requires some pragmatism to sort out this very big challenge of a spending shortage. We are as indebted as Greece but our interest rates are a whole lot lower because the markets are confident we will sort it."

Meeting on the morning that Liam Fox's angry letter to No 10 over defence cuts is splashed across the front pages, Mrs Spelman does not mention the Defence Secretary by name, but admits to being pleased that her battles with the Treasury have not spilled out into the open. "I think it's up to each minister to go about it in the way they think best."

While the Ministry of Defence dominates Whitehall, Defra's headquarters, tucked away in Smith Square, were once home to Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd (ICI), and Mrs Spelman uses the former office of a captain of industry. She laughs off the idea the wood panelling could be sold to raise funds for the departments, but admits it is best to hold meetings in the Treasury, to avoid Mr Osborne eyeing up her fixtures and fittings.

The door is always open for the Prime Minister, though. "When David Cameron came to visit, he quite spontaneously said Defra is the Government's fourth emergency service. If there's a flood, it's us. If there's a disease outbreak, it's us. If there's a chemical spill or radiological leak, it's us. Those are frontline services, so obviously we have to do what we can to protect the frontline."

Mrs Spelman's first five months in government have been dominated by saving money, while also trying to live up to the PM's boast that this would be the "the greenest government ever". Labour's attacks have begun in earnest. Hilary Benn, the shadow Environment Secretary, has accused the coalition of "dithering" on policy while cuts to farming and the natural world "will affect the lives of our children and our grandchildren".

Despite protests from Labour, Mrs Spelman says scores of environmental quangos are being abolished because "a lot of Conservatives feel that's where a lot of waste and bureaucracy was, and we have got on and done something about it". She points to a ban on imports of illegally logged wood – a move set in train by the last government (the coalition has been criticised for not keeping a pre-election commitment to make owning or importing illegal timber a crime) – and defends the decision not to pursue Mr Benn's ban on sending waste that could be recycled to landfill. "What we have to do is make it easier for people to recycle more. I believe much more in incentives than penalties."

Bins, particularly the wheelie variety, became an absurdly significant political battleground before the election, with most ire aimed at the introduction of fortnightly collections. Mrs Spelman does not want to get involved. "My view is local authorities should provide a waste collection service that their taxpayers want. That will vary from place to place." Not quite the message the Tories gave before the election, or the mood coming from Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, with whom Mrs Spelman has reportedly clashed over waste policy. "They were stories," she says, sidestepping talk of a rift.

Indeed, she reserves most of her praise of cabinet colleagues for Liberal Democrats. She "gets on very well personally" with Chris Huhne, the Climate Change Secretary, "works very well" with Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, over creating a new supermarket watchdog, and "obviously works very well" with Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, after reaching a settlement on her budget. Taking a view of the coalition as a whole, she says it is – you guessed it – "working very well".

Even Nick Clegg seemed "pleasantly surprised" when the pair – both linguists – met, though they spoke only in English. The Tory-Lib Dem love-in continues apace, but for the Conservative grassroots this is not where they wanted to be. How did they let a double-digit poll lead slide to the point of having to share power with the party of which Mrs Spelman once remarked "I am rarely embarrassed by Liberal Democrats; usually, the most I feel is sorry for them"?

In fact, the former party chairman believes the Tory membership will gather in Birmingham this weekend to "enjoy the fact that we have a Conservative prime minister". She remains confident that the coalition will last the full five-year term, not least because both parties will need time to improve their poll ratings after the spending cuts hit.

Under Labour, Defra was seen as either a starting point in a political career – David Miliband stayed for barely 12 months – or a political siding that receives little media attention. But Mrs Spelman insists she wants to stay for a long time, in particular to achieve real results on protecting biodiversity. "As Environment Secretary, I would be negligent if I didn't shout from the rooftops that we have a problem. That the loss of species will cost us money, and it will undermine our resilience in the face of scientific and medical research because we are losing information that we cannot recreate that we may need to save lives and to save the planet as we know it."

She also wants to reform the water industry 20 years after privatisation, and make the farming industry and the countryside feel loved again. This does not extend to rushing into another debate about the fox-hunting ban. A free vote on repeal will be held in this parliament, but it will not be "early" as was promised before the election. "I am scarred by 600 parliamentary hours of debating fox-hunting under New Labour. Let's not make the same mistake. The top priority is to fix the deficit and then implement the changes that flow from that."

One way of saving money and helping the environment is to reduce the carbon footprint of Whitehall ministries. Defra's old building is struggling, and the minister's aides barely manage a smile at being reminded about the air conditioning not being on during the long, hot summer. At least 15 minutes spent "sitting in the gloom" for the photographer who wanted the electric lights off will have done its bit. Let's hope it doesn't give the Treasury ideas. Saving the planet in the orange glow of the streetlight outside her window may be a step too far.

Curriculum vitae

1958 Born Caroline Cormack in Bishop's Stortford, Herts. After Herts and Essex High School for Girls, awarded first-class degree in European studies at University of London.

1981 Sugar beet commodity secretary for the National Farmers' Union.

1984 Deputy director of the International Confederation of European Beet Growers in Paris .

1987 Marries Mark Spelman, now a senior partner at Accenture. Two sons and a daughter. Co-owns Spelman, Cormack & Associates, a lobbying firm for the food and biotechnology industry, with her husband.

1989 Research fellow at the Centre for European Agricultural Studies (part of the University of Kent) until 1993.

1997 Elected Conservative MP for Meriden with a majority of 582.

2001 Appointed shadow Secretary of State for International Development by Iain Duncan Smith. Overlooked by IDS's successor, Michael Howard.

2004 Re-enters Shadow Cabinet as shadow Secretary of State for Local and Devolved Government Affairs.

2007 Becomes Conservative Party chairman under David Cameron.

2008 Embroiled in "Nannygate" controversy. Agreed to pay back £9,600 in allowances that she had used to pay her children's nanny.

2009 It is reported that Spelman claimed £40,000 in expenses for her constituency home, despite her husband claiming it as their main home when he stood for the European Parliament that year.

2010 Becomes Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Rebecca Greig

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