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Orders of the Day — BSE Crisis

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:23 pm on 17th February 1997.

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Photo of John Redwood John Redwood , Wokingham 6:23 pm, 17th February 1997

A few days ago, Labour party briefing was saying that this was the debate that would shake the Government to their foundations, but this morning the briefing had changed. Labour Members ought to listen to this so that they are "on message", as the new spin doctors say. Labour's briefing changed: this was the debate that would be out to wound rather than kill.

I came to the debate expecting passion, decisiveness and enthusiasm, but instead I heard the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang). I heard him stumble; I heard him unable to explain what magic ingredient Labour would bring to the problem if it were ever trusted with it; I heard him unable to take interventions. Looking behind him, I saw that fewer than 50 Labour Members had come to support him. They obviously knew how bad he was going to be.

Even worse for the hon. Gentleman, I noticed that the Labour leader was not present. And, even worse than that, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson)—the puppet master of the shadow Cabinet; the man who writes the lines that the others have to say; the man who briefs against those who do not say the right lines—was not present. He clearly knew that this would not be a cracking good speech. It would, however, be unfair to blame the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East. Nowadays, Labour policy and Labour approaches are governed on a soundbite-a-day basis, the soundbites being strictly rationed by Mr. Campbell and the hon. Member for Hartlepool. They fashion the soundbites, and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East attempts to translate them into Scottish and to deliver on the Floor of the House.

The BSE problem presents new Labour with an especially difficult conundrum. New Labour wants to be loved by everyone. On the one hand, it wants to be loved by the farmers. It is strange that new Labour now thinks that the deputy leader of the Labour party might help to win the love of the farmers, and is targeting him in their constituencies. On the other hand, it wants to be loved by the consumers, the food pressure groups and all the journalists who took a different line at the outset of the problem.

What do you do if you want to be loved by two groups who are potentially opposed to each other, if you have never knowingly stood up to an opinion poll in your life and said that it might be wrong, and if you have never knowingly stood up to a focus group in your life and said that that might be wrong? You have to agree with all sides at the same time—or at different times—and hope that no one notices that you are saying different things.

I have a piece of advice for the member of the shadow Cabinet who is cursed with the agricultural task. If he wishes to have real influence over the leadership—the leadership that spurned his speeches, and does not seem to give him much backing—he should resign from the shadow Cabinet and join a focus group, or the press office of the Leader of the Opposition. That is the way in which things are done, and changed, in the modern Labour party; that is the way in which any shadow Cabinet member must proceed if he becomes serious about wanting to influence policy and affect the daily soundbite.

A far more important question, however, lies at the kernel of the issue that we are discussing—a question that has affected livelihoods throughout the country, and matters very much to farmers and all in the meat trade. What have our European Government been doing to help solve the problem? Did not that Government—the Commission and its supporters—turn a problem for British agriculture into a mighty crisis? Was it not their ban that cut off, overnight, a £500 million export market for this country? Was it not their ban that stopped British farmers selling high-quality British beef that was perfectly safe to eat, except in the British marketplace? Was that not what undermined confidence on the continent of Europe?