It was day two of the horse burger crisis, and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was not to be seen in Parliament. When Labour’s agriculture spokesman Mary Creagh last dragged ministers to the House – to discuss the death of ash trees – his Liberal Democrat deputy David Heath explained that Owen Paterson was away “talking to people who are dealing with the disease”.
Where was he this time? Stuffing one of the offending articles into the mouth of an unsuspecting child to show there was no risk to health, as John Gummer had done to his own daughter during the BSE scare? Heath wasn’t saying, despite repeated invitations from Labour MPs to do so.
Instead he got rather cross. He told Ms Creagh that it was “very, very important that neither she nor anyone else in this House talks down the food industry at a time when the standards of the industry are at a very high level”. He had been “impressed” by the speed with which Tesco had cleared the burgers off their shelves. As MPs got cross in turn, he got crosser still, telling them: “I am not personally responsible for having mislabelled horse meat in the Republic of Ireland.”
True there was a mild danger of some MPs overdoing it. Labour’s Kevan Jones asked how “confident” his constituents could be “that they are getting a Big Mac rather than a Shergar Mac?” The Tory Philip Hollobone sought to make sure in the event of “criminality”, “exemplary sentences” would be handed out. Joan Walley challenged Mr Heath to say whether he had held a “cabinet-level meeting across all departments”. Presumably to trigger an immediate mobilisation of Cobra – perhaps rechristened for the purpose Cabinet Office Burger Room A.
The debate nevertheless exposed a real divide between Mr Heath and many consumerist backbenchers, identified most luridly by Labour’s Kevin Brennan, who asked whether Mr Heath realised he had given “the impression that he has been captured, stunned, trussed up and served to the nation as the minister for the producer interest?” His colleague Ben Bradshaw warned Mr Heath he was “striking a very ill-judged tone”.
No one, however, was prepared to stand up for eating horse meat. In the fevered atmosphere, that really would have been political suicide.