Owen Paterson - the invisible Minister

| 18th February 2014
Dunedin Highland Games. This picture really did come up on a creative commons image search for Owen Paterson. Photo: theSuperStar via Flickr.com.
Dunedin Highland Games. This picture really did come up on a creative commons image search for Owen Paterson. Photo: theSuperStar via Flickr.com.
Storms, floods, tidal surges, a failed badger cull, GMO controversies ... then Owen Paterson, widely considered the worst Environment Secretary we have ever had, vanished. Lesley Docksey wonders - will he ever return?
There is one outstanding candidate for the job of Environment Secretary - The Ecologist's former editor Zac Goldsmith.

You could say that Mr Paterson's disappearance is nothing new. He has a record of being absent when things got tough.

More than one important release of information about the badger cull and bovine TB appeared as a written statement to Parliament, thus avoiding inconvenient questions from fellow MPs.

On other occasions information was just let out on the Defra website with no anouncement or press release at all.

His reaction to a debate in the Commons about the cull was to leave early, muttering "I can't stand much more of this".

Those naughty badgers

The gales of laughter, both in the House and from the wider public that greeted his insistence that the badgers had moved the goalposts must surely have spoilt his dinner that evening and made the idea of showing his face there again in the near future unappealing.

But there are times when someone in his position simply must be visible. As Environment Secretary he surely has responsibility for visiting areas hit by environmental disasters, but he was not to be seen on any parts of the east coast following the damaging storm and tidal surge on 5 December last year.

Then on 12th December the Environment Agency issued new flood maps, showing that the Somerset Levels were at medium to high risk.

Any preparatory or preventative action seemed as invisible as Mr Paterson himself, busy as he was apparently chairing ineffective Cobra crisis meetings in London. And it must have been clear by then that we were in for a very wet winter.

The Christmas floods - where was he?

Nor was he visible over the Christmas period when storms on 23 December caused flooding in Kent and Surrey, and left 70,000 without power for the whole of the Christmas period.

As storm after storm wheeled in it became obvious that the government and all its associated bodies were singularly ill-prepared to deal with the kind of weather that the climate scientists had been warning us of for years.

On Monday 27th January Mr Paterson finally went to the Somerset Levels - something he should have done weeks before, seeing that by 3 January the Levels were already being hit by the worst flooding for nearly a century, and the forecast said there was more, much more on the way.


And yet, perhaps we should praise him for being the first government representative to brave the anger of the residents. And they were angry, particularly when it became known that the press conference he gave was only for the BBC, ITV and Sky News.

There is one outstanding candidate for the job of Environment Secretary - The Ecologist's former editor Zac Goldsmith.

All other media - and particularly the local media - were barred from attending. Nor could local groups or residents gain his ear.

On 4 February Prince Charles paid a much more welcome visit to the Levels, bringing with him a more sympathetic ear and some much needed money.

Later that day and through the night yet more storms, huge waves and tidal surges brought destruction to the south and west coasts, with the sea invading seaside town centres and demolishing the sea wall at Dawlish, leaving the one and only rail link to Cornwall hanging in midair.

Dr Rob Thompson, from the University of Reading's Department of Meteorology talked of a "storm factory" out in the Atlantic.

McCavity was gone

The next day, with disasters looming in all directions, Paterson disappeared. It was announced that he had to have an emergency operation to repair a detached retina and that David Cameron would be chairing the latest Cobra meeting in his stead.

The Environment Secretary apparently had his operation on 6 February. According to the Telegraph he was expected to be off work for a week.

But there was a peculiar absence of news about a man who had hit far too many headlines - over his statements on GM crops, the benefits of climate change, his running of the disastrous badger cull and his department's botched responses to both flood prevention and the floods themselves.

Paterson had in fact just two indirect media outings. First, the report that he had written to David Cameron complaining about the "grandstanding" of Eric Pickles - who was standing in for Paterson, and took the opportunity to launch an intemperate attack on the Environment Agency.

Second, a casual mention by Chris Smith on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, that he'd had a supportive text from Paterson, disowning Pickles' ill-advised comments.

While the cat's away ...

But there has been speculation, in the Belfast Telegraph and The Ecologist among others, that Paterson was in danger of losing his job.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported: "Asked repeatedly by reporters in London today if Paterson would take back responsibility for the flooding once he returns to work, Cameron's spokesman, Jean-Christophe Gray, declined to answer directly, saying that Cameron and Pickles were expected to continue in charge."

And the Daily Mail wrote : "Mr Paterson in particular is accused of botching the response, leaving his wellington boots in his car while visiting Somerset, blaming Dutch settlers under Charles I for draining the Levels and refusing to support claims the storms are linked to climate change.

"Senior government sources have expressed surprise that Mr Paterson repeatedly insisted the situation was under control, with junior ministers chairing Cobra meetings in the early days of the crisis."

And to make matters worse, even his subordinate Floods Minister Dan Rogerson has been more noticeable for his absence than for any action he might have taken.

And the eye-op - not a word

While there were plenty of news reports about the need for him to have an emergency operation, there was no report that his operation was successful or that it had even taken place.

Not one word has emerged from Westminster, Defra, or Mr Paterson's own office as to his state of health or recovery after a highly publicised need for an emergency operation.

Only Paterson's local paper, the Shropshire Star, quoted Paterson's wife as saying that, having had the operation in London, her husband had returned home and now "has got to lie on his back for 4 days staring at the ceiling".

Which is odd. For any trouble with detached retinas, the usual advice is to stay as still as possible. And for some days after an operation such as Paterson was reported to have had, one should not travel - at all. So how come he managed to travel from London to Shropshire? 

All a bit odd

So where exactly is Mr Paterson, and what is he doing? Has he gone to ground or been kicked into the long grass of our huge water meadows?

Will he carry on being a disaster for our precious environment while he both delights and irritates us with his absurd utterances? Or will he quietly step down for unspecified health or family reasons?

One Cabinet minister gave MailOnline a surprisingly candid assessment of the man: "He just isn't very bright. Most of the people around the Cabinet table are bright, even if I disagree with them, but not Owen. He isn't climate sceptic, he's climate stupid."

He may well be the worst Environment Secretary ever but, looking at the current government, who among them would be any better, wedded as they are to money, big business and self importance?

Certainly not Mr Pickles.

Of course there is one outstanding candidate for the job of Environment Secretary - The Ecologist's former editor Zac Goldsmith.



For the record: Mr Paterson may be a lousy Environment Secretary, but The Ecologist still wishes him a full and speedy recovery from his detached retina and we hope the operation was 100% successful.

Lesley Docksey is a freelance writer who contributes articles to The Ecologist and other news media with international reach on issues of war, peace, politics and the environment.

See her other articles for The Ecologist.


More from this author


The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate now.