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UK Politics

Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Owen Paterson, Cruella de Vil of the environment


Owen Paterson yesterday lived splendidly up to his image as the Tory Cruella De Vil, draped luxuriously in the fur of culled badgers, by pointing to other countries where once-loved species were being drastically thinned out by the authorities.

 “We can look at the United States and the white-tailed deer, the brushtail possum in New Zealand” he told MPs excitedly. (In the former case, as Paterson neglected to mention, government sharpshooters armed with night vision goggles and silencers stalked the biggest park in Washington DC to kill hundreds of the deer because of their irritating habit of eating vegetation, trampling neighbourhood gardens, and wandering uninvited into local restaurants.)

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary was cross about Opposition scepticism on the cull, nostalgic for 1972 when bovine TB was at only 0.01 percent and “we had a bipartisan approach.” That was before the great ideological divide, of course, which left Conservatives as the party of hardworking, revenue earning, cows and Labour representing feckless badgers who sleep most of the day and gorge on botanically useful earthworms at night.

He was as defiant on the virtues of the cull as he was on the floods. Not the greenest of ministers, he declined to endorse David Cameron’s declaration on Wednesday that he “strongly suspected” they were caused by climate change. And he deflected questions on figures suggesting a £100m fall in flood defence spending by ruthlessly exploiting Labour’s unwillingness to match coalition funding plans this far from the election. “If you want flood defences, you vote Conservative,” he barked confidently, as if this was an answer.

Which it wasn’t, any more than another Paterson classic in response to environmentalist fears that his “biodiversity offsetting” plan could mean replacement of ancient woodland. “As someone who has planted an arboretum over recent years, the idea that I am going to trash ancient woodlands is an absolute outrage to me personally,” he insisted. Apart from coming out as the first arbiculturalist cabinet minister since Michael Heseltine, Paterson will not have reassured doubters with this answer. It fails to see the wood for the trees.

Video: Aerial shots of UK flooding