The strange case of the disappearing department

Has anyone heard from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?

Of all the government departments to lead, you might think the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is a bit of a cushy number. You could hardly say it's high profile. You might know that Caroline Spelman is the Secretary of State, but I challenge any of you to pick Richard Benyon, Jim Paice or Lord Taylor of Holbeach out of a line up. I've just done a Google image search of all three and I'm still not entirely sure I can.

But as it happens, there's a case that Defra might be one of the more challenging ministerial portfolios. It has a nasty habit of biting politicians in the backside. Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing minister, calmly scuttling off on relaxing away-days to Cumbria and Cornwall, when suddenly - splat. An almighty political combine harvester creeps up behind them and the next thing they know they've been sliced to a bloody pulp.

Back in 2001 the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff - Defra's predecessor) was serenely going about its business when it was hit by the Foot and Mouth crisis. The department's media officers, who until that point had little more strenuous to do than draft press releases about EU fishing quotas, were suddenly elbowed aside by a cohort of thrusting Number 10 media advisers, stomping all over their patch like the FBI containing an alien invasion while telling the town sheriff to keep his nose out of it. A year later, as a result of the department's inability to cope with the farrago, Maff had been brutally and swiftly dissolved: Defra was born.

And it's a department that's still tussling with some of the issues that led to its creation. It spent £113m on land for the disposal of animal carcasses as a result of Foot and Mouth. Last year Private Eye reported on the news that land it had bought at Throckporton for £3.8m had been sold for £831,000, to a man who'd previously been jailed for dumping contaminated waste. Whichever way you look at it, that's probably not a great deal.

Caroline Spelman's combine harvester moment, of course, was the sale of Britain's forests. It made so much sense on paper, didn't it? The Forestry Commission was one of those quangos that was regulator, owner and sole profiteer - it was stagnant, and devoid of incentives to do anything new or exciting. Time to hand that land over to communities and charities.

How gaping the gap between political theory and reality. In practice the Forestry Commission is no such thing. In practise the shoddy presentation of the plan meant it managed to enrage sandal-wearing environmentalists, marmalade-dropping Telegraph readers and everyone in between. Even I was annoyed, and I don't even like forests that much. Spelman was forced into a U-turn the scale of which hadn't been seen since Napoleon fled Moscow, apologising for getting it totally "wrong" and even "thanking colleagues for their support during what's been a difficult time," as if admitting to some secretly-held drug dependency.

It's interesting to look at this retreat in retrospect. There was no determination from Number 10 to fight for the bill as there has been with the NHS reforms. It was a bad bill, but that's never stopped governments trying to get them passed before. And how interesting to learn a few months later that the National Trust and the Wildlife Trust had actually presented Spelman with "shopping lists" - of 171 areas of woodland that they considered perfectly suitable for purchase thank you very much. Doesn't seem to square with Dame Fiona Reynolds of the National Trust's public pronouncements: "We were created by three Victorian radicals who were not afraid to stand up and say society needs beauty and fresh air. It is wonderful to remember that," she said, fingers no doubt tightly crossed behind her back.

At the time of Spelman's retraction, so mealy mouthed had it been, there was acceptance she'd taken one for team Cameron. She has previous in this regard. She prostrated herself before the Cabinet upon getting the job by offering a 30 per cent cut in four years - from £3bn to £2.2bn - by far the largest. The cuts will largely impact on civil servants and quangos (reduced from 92 to 39). The U-turn and departmental shrinkage appear to mean we have a Department that, for us muggles, is doing a passable impression of the Ministry of Magic. We've heard it's there: we just can't see it. Departments - even under Tory rule - are supposed to bother us with initiatives and pronouncements. It's infuriating: but it's their job. Look at this! Do this! Don't do that! From Defra we hear almost the opposite. Don't mind us; we've got everything under control. Ooh look over there; a squirrel.

Perhaps it's because there's a bigger storm around the corner. If you think the print publishing industry is a basket case, it's nothing on farming. The average farmer relies on subsidies - the EU Single Farm Payment (SFP) - for their annual income. It was supposed to be an interim measure, and is paid to farmers per acre of land they farm - whether they produce food or not. And for many livestock farmers, they may as well not bother. Despite rising farm outputs, incomes are declining due to rising costs in feed and fuel. Three quarters of arable farmers need the subsidy to make a profit.

It counts for 36 per cent of the EU's annual budget. New legislation aims to reinstate payments linked to production where there is evidence of so-called "slipper farming" (faking the production of food), but God only knows how Defra will ensure farmers abide by regulations given they're haemorrhaging civil servants. And last year the department's own study showed the UK would be the worst affected of any of the 27 EU member states if the SFP vanished - 75 per cent of livestock farms would trade at a loss.

Last year Spelman produced another U-turn: it got much less attention than the forest sale, but it was no less significant. Early in 2011 she told the Oxford farming conference she wanted to end farmers' dependence on subsidies. You can imagine how well it went down. Soon she was "clarifying her position" once more - she didn't want "dogmatic" scrapping - she wanted "reform" so that farmers "could stand on their own two feet". A far more (pardon the pun) friendly speech at the corresponding event this year generated no headlines.

Mind you, some farmers could be forgiven for thinking subsidies have already been scrapped. The Rural Payments Agency, an executive agency of Defra, was formed to pay out £1.7bn a year in subsidies to English farmers in the form of SFPs. Last year we learned £300m was paid out in extra staff to sort out backlogs in payments, and £327m to the EU in fines because of SFP errors. The Commons Public Accounts Committee met in November hoping to hear of improvement - instead it heard about £53m set aside for EU disallowance fines relating to SFP. These late payments have left farmers in penury. A quarter of them live below the income poverty line of less than £20,000.

It's a tough enough time to work in agriculture- not only is your union spineless (witness the complete lack of support it gave during the supermarket milk price war), but you're overseen by a department that seems to be doing little to help. Even on badger culling, Defra has first wrung its hands and left it to the farmers (the Big Society option), before it delayed the decision till May. The department's recent food and drink export plan was well-received and a step in the right direction for a sector that could really boom if it's able to tap into the Russian, Chinese, Indian and Brazilian markets, but there is so much to be done. At present none of them figure in the top ten countries to which we export agri-food and drink.

After you've downsized, there's a problem with laissez-faire policies, and more so with delays: you might stay out of the headlines, but sooner or later people who take any interest will start to think there's nothing happening at all. Whether it's the badger cull or reform of the Common Agricultural Policy in 2013, there's a simple point - a department might be able to keep a low profile for a while, but it can't disappear.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. He lives in London and tweets as @aljwhite. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture, republished this year.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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What Labour's plotters are thinking

The ground may have shifted underneath Jeremy Corbyn's feet, at least as far as the rules on nominations are concerned. 

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has been rocked by seven resignations from his shadow cabinet, as the attempt to remove the Labour leader gathers speed and pace.

I’m told there will be more to come. What’s going on?

As I’ve written before, the big problem for Labour’s Corbynsceptics is that Corbyn won big among party members in September and his support has, if anything increased since then. Although a lot of ink was wasted over fears of “entryism” which at the outside probably contributed about a percentage point to Corbyn’s 40-point landslide, it is “exitism”  - the exodus of anti-Corbynite members and their replacement with his supporters that is shifting the party towards its left flank.

Added to that is the unhelpfully vague wording of Labour’s constitution. It is clear that Corbyn’s challengers would need to collect 50 signatures from Labour MPs and MEPs to trigger a leadership challenge, a hurdle that the plotters are confident of hopping. It is less clear whether Corbyn himself would have to do so.

But what appears to have happened is that Iain McNicol, the party’s general secretary, has received legal advice that he should not put Corbyn on the ballot paper unless the parliamentary Labour party does so – advice that he is willing to put his job on the line to follow. McNicol believes that the NEC – which has a fragile Corbynite majority on some issues but not on all – will back him up on this matter. (Significantly, at time of writing, none of the three frontbenchers who hold NEC posts, which are in the gift of the shadow cabinet not the party’s leader, have resigned.)

McNicol himself is currently at Glastonbury. Also on his way back from that music festival is Tom Watson, the deputy leader, whose political protégés include Gloria DePiero, who resigned earlier today. Stiffening the resolve of Labour MPs that they can pull this off and survive the rage of the membership is a motion of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn passed by Wrexham constituency Labour party. The MP there is Ian Lucas, a respected MP from the party’s right, who is now on the backbenches but resigned from Tony Blair’s government in 2006 after Blair refused to set out his departure date.  That coup, of course, was organised by Tom Watson.

Watson is respected by Labour’s general secretaries, who are publicly supportive of Corbyn but many of whom would privately prefer to see the end of him. Crucially, they are even more opposed to John McDonnell, who has been a reliable ally to their leftwing opponents in internal elections.

As for party members, having called around this morning there is certainly some movement away from Corbyn, partly due to the Vice documentary and also due to the referendum campaign. My impression, however, is that the candidate they are looking for – someone who could have much of Corbyn’s politics but with greater political nous and the ability to bring together more of the PLP – doesn’t exist in the parliamentary party. There are some lower-ranked members of the 2010 and 2015 intakes who might fit the bill, but their time is far from ripe. It's also not clear to me how significant that movement away is in percentage terms - Corbyn won by 40 points and was 19 points clear of needing a second round, so his capacity to survive erosion is strong. 

Significantly, within the parliamentary party's three anti-Corbyn tendencies, “the let him fail and strike once” and the "we're stuck with him, keep quiet and do other things" factions are currently recessional and the “strike and strike until he gives up” faction is ascendant, adding to the pressure on the leadership, at least temporarily. The prospect of what may be a winnable election post-Brexit with a different leader - as one MP said to me, "Angela [Eagle] is not that good but she is good enough [should Brexit trigger a recession] - has Corbynsceptics less inclined to write off the next election. 

At the start of the year, I thought that no attempt to replace Corbyn before the election would work. That's still my “central forecast” – but a bet that looked more reliable than a ISA now looks rather shaky.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.