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Tim Bonner: Last chance for the Conservatives to reconnect with the countryside

The last few years have seen a regular turnover of leadership at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. On Tuesday, Therese Coffey resigned as Secretary of State and Steve Barclay, previously the Health Secretary, was appointed by the Prime Minister as the seventh Defra Secretary in seven years. 

The new Secretary of State is MP for the rural constituency of North East Cambridgeshire and gave a barnstorming speech at the Alliance’s reception at the Conservative Party Conference. However, he has a big job on his hands to restore the confidence of the rural community. The regular turnover at the top of Defra has resulted in a department which, whilst it has retained a consistent position on core issues, seems to have been less confident reacting to the unexpected, and, also, in dealing with its agencies and advisors. This is hardly surprising when some Secretaries of State and Ministers have barely had time to get their feet under the desk before moving on.

The result has been a number of missteps over recent years which have challenged the relationship between the government and rural people who had overwhelmingly supported them at the 2019 general election. Some of those related to deliberate policy and particularly an ill-advised foray into the territory of animal rights. The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act, the Trophy Hunting Bill, commitments to ban electric collars and even action on greyhound and horse racing were all presented as populist policies, but in fact just alienated significant parts of the rural community whilst having no effect at all on broader public attitudes to the government or the Conservative Party. 

However, other issues which have annoyed, and in some cases enraged, the countryside were more the result of ignorance, bad advice and a dysfunctional system. The decision by Natural England to withdraw general licences for the control of avian pests in 2019, for instance, was unnecessary, damaging and resulted from a failure of Ministers to recognise and address fundamental bias and incompetence within its own agencies. That situation was at least rectified, but it is deeply frustrating that the same theme was replicated first in in relation to the imposition of licences to release game birds on or near protected areas, and then to withdraw those general licences, allegedly in response to the threat of Avian Influenza.

The Conservative Party had virtually a free ride in rural constituencies after the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote in the 2015 general election, but things have changed decisively in the last couple of years. Keir Starmer is courting the countryside and the Lib Dems are winning by-elections in previously safe Conservative rural seats. The countryside increasingly looks like the crucial battlefield of the next election with Labour looking to retake rural marginals in the North and Midlands, whilst the Lib Dems look to re-establish themselves in the South and West.

The new Secretary of State probably has a year to regain the trust of large parts of the rural community before the next election and from his speech at conference it is clear that he will want to do just that. This does not mean diverting from the critical priorities of tackling climate change and biodiversity decline, but it will require him to hammer home the message both to his department and to Natural England that the rural community is a big part of the solutions to those challenges, not the problem that created them. It must also mean an end to supposedly populist legislation on domestic and wild animals which would restrict and hinder rural activities.

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