Richard North, 09/09/2012  

Booker 171-meu.jpg
The saga of Owen Paterson continues, with a broadside from Geoffrey Lean in his column yesterday, another snipe in The Observer and then a counterblast from Booker today.

However, despite assertions to the contrary, the appointment of the "pragmatic" eurosceptic Paterson – who is also extremely sound on climate change and many other issues, not least fishing - can hardly reflect a U-turn on the part of David Cameron. The reshuffle, for instance, has also put in place the arch-greenie David Heath, who was at one time parliamentary consultant for the WWF.

And, as his right hand "person", Paterson also has for a permanent secretary Bronwyn Hill who is probably every normal person's idea of a nightmare for a lead civil servant in such an important department.  One does not anticipate a meeting of minds.  

As to the real reason for his appointment, Booker points out that the brief Paterson has been given is to revive Britain's hard-pressed rural economy, in the hope of reviving the flagging Tory vote in the shires.

Defra is one of the departments most dominated by EU law, from agriculture, fishing, water, waste and the environment generally, so there is very little Paterson can do in these areas, without first seeking either treaty change, or departure from the European Union. And, in the short-term, neither is going to happen.

Nevertheless, according to Booker - who has spoken to the new secretary of state several times over the last few days - Paterson is intent on bringing about the most radical shake-up in Defra's orientation for decades. But, says Booker, if he fails in this, he will at least have demonstrated where those problems lie, which are in so many ways constraining the lives of all those affected by its vast range of activities.

Such fireworks aside, there is in fact an extremely important reason why Paterson should be in place in Defra, for which he is admirably qualified and for which he is absolutely the right man.

Readers will recall that, in early July, William Hague launched a "full audit" of EU law and the UK, under the title: Review of the Balance of Competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

As a precursor to either renegotiation (unlikely), or part of a process of gradual disengagement from the EU, which one arch-europhile thinks is already happening, Hague thought it "the right time to take a critical and constructive look at exactly which competences lie with the EU, which lie with the UK, and whether it works in our national interest".

This, he said back in July, "will be a thorough and analytical piece of work, involving many Government Departments and taking evidence from representatives from business and other interest groups, the British public and our EU and global partners".

Hague went on to tell us that he wanted to "take stock of the impact of the EU on our country based on a detailed assessment of those things that derive from EU law that affect us in the UK".

This extensive piece of work, he added, "has never been attempted before – and it will take time to do well". It will, he said, "provide a profound analysis of what our membership of the EU means now and for our future. It will ensure that our national debate is grounded in knowledge of the facts and will be a vital aid for policy making in Government".

There are few things once would leap up to applaud of this government, but this is one of them. For too long, the EU debate has been tired and stale – and it has always lacked hard-edged facts to inform the argument. Thus, it is important that we have this "profound analysis", and it is vitally important that it is done well.

With a europhile in change of Defra, one can imagine how lukewarm the contribution from Defra might be. But with Paterson in charge, we have a man who can ensure that the exercise is done thoroughly, honestly, and in great detail – for a department which is so embedded in the EU that is a virtual branch office of Brussels.

For once, therefore, circumstances have conspired to put the right man in the right place at the right time. And if Owen Paterson achieves nothing else during his tenure than to produce this audit in a way we would want and expect, it will be enough. We can only hope that he succeeds.

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