Michael McCarthy: The truth about Elliot Morley - the man I knew

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The Independent Online

Sometimes sheer longevity gives you a right to pass judgements. In the course of reporting on the environment for The Independent, I have observed every single Labour environment minister since the party came into office in 1997, and I have no doubt at all that the one who has done the most to protect the natural world is Elliot Morley.

First as a junior minister, then as Minister of State, Mr Morley spent nine unbroken years in office, from 1997 to 2006, continually dealing with green issues, and in all that time, he was on what environmentalists would instinctively think of as the right side of the argument. That's not a common quality in the Labour Party. Labour doesn't really "get" the environment; the party's cultural origins lie in concern for urban social problems. Many Labour politicians view concern for the countryside and wildlife, and beyond that, for the environment as a whole, as an irrelevance. Elliot Morley was different. Although wholly urban himself, he had come through boyhood birdwatching to a full understanding of the worth and essence of the natural world, and he brought that with him into government.

It meant that when he was Fisheries Minister between 1997 and 2003, he sought to follow the advice of scientists concerned about fish stocks, rather than go along with what fishermen wanted to catch (not a popular position for a Humberside MP). It meant that he was a passionate and outspoken opponent of commercial whaling. It meant that he was a firm supporter of the bill which banned foxhunting. It meant that he was a strong opponent of both GM crops and the reintroduction of nuclear power, both favoured not only by his then boss as Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett, but also by Tony Blair.

Most of all he became concerned about climate change – and it was that which did for his ministerial career. In trying to get other departments to meet Labour's ultimately unsuccessful target of a 20 per cent cut in carbon emissions, he incurred the enmity of a powerful figure in Downing Street who was not only the friend of heavy industry but who had the ear of Tony Blair – and Morley was sacked in May 2006.

This man spent all his long ministerial career defending the environment, and lost his job by trying too hard to save it. Say what you like. Cast what stones you want. This is the truth.