Town Tories in front row seat on scandal, served up straight from horse’s mouth of minister
No sooner had the former Northern Ireland Secretary arrived to speak at Tamworth Tory Association’s annual dinner than Prime Minister David Cameron was “ordering” him back to Westminister to preside over the biggest crisis since Mad Cow Disease in the mid 1990s.
The association’s event resembled something akin to a war HQ as the minister, whose Environment portfolio includes food and rural affairs, fielded frantic phone calls from London as more bad news of stores withdrawing ‘beef’ products from their shelves emerged.
Association officials – no strangers to controversy when their October 2011 dinner guest speaker MP Liam Fox made his first public appearance a week after his shock resignation from the post of Defence Secretary in a lobbyist row – were forced to completely re-arrange Friday evening’s schedule as North Shropshire MP Paterson had originally been booked to give his talk to the local Tory faithful at 9.45pm.
When news filtered through that the Environment Secretary had been told by the PM to stage media interviews to “calm mounting alarm” – including a 10 o’clock live slot on Jeremy Paxman’s Newsnight programme – Mr Paterson’s speech was hastily sandwiched between the butternut squash soup starters and the main course, which fortunately was pan fired chicken breast.
While the audience – the second largest gathering of Tories at a function outside of London in the last five years – whetted their appetite waiting for news of what IS really in a Findus lasagne, the minister treated the 263 guests to a more familiar diet of what the Coalition government had “inherited” from the last Labour administration nearly three years ago.
He accused them of leaving the country facing a debt mountain which means borrowing at a rate of £400,000 a minute. “But we have steadied the ship and our credit rating has held up,” he said.
“We have got a grip on public spending and you won’t hear on the BBC that we have created 1.2 million private jobs since coming to power.”
He touched on former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith’s reforms in the workplace which meant it was now “worth working an extra hour for an extra hour’s pay” and Education Secretary Michael Gove’s “triumphs” in re-organising education which had far-reaching consequences for future generations in the UK.
He also spoke on his involvement at the recent ‘Minister of Floods’ as the UK suffered the worst rainfall in more than a century last year with 2013 starting in the same vein. He expressed concern that 95 per cent of the water that falls on the country “runs away.” he added: “The trick is being able to hold it back.”
Finally he satisfied the audience’s hunger for news on to the meaty issue of the moment – the breaking scandal of up to 100 per cent horsemeat found in beef products.
MP Paterson is a man used to making tough decisions. A former managing director of the British Leather Company until being elected to parliament 15 years ago, he gave guests a taster of what he planned to tell the nation later that evening: “It may well be a criminal activity behind this,” he warned.
Reassuring the guests, he added: “The public need to get what is says on the tin.”
And then the biggest revelation, from a man who has crossed both Turkmenistan and Mongolia on horseback, admitting he had eaten horse on his journeying through the latter country. “I survived on it,” he told the audience.Tamworth MP Chris Pincher thanked the minister for his valuable time and added: “When you get an opportunity on Newsnight in an hour’s time, give Paxo [Jeremy Paxman] a jolly good stuffing”.
And then he was gone – galloping away from the venue in a ministerial car at 9.30pm.
The dinner, which was organised by former Lichfield District Council leader David Smith, Tamworth Tories’ chief fundraiser John Brown and myself, was introduced by association chairman Trevor Soult who said he was pleased to note that the guests included three MPs – Tamworth’s Chris Pincher, North Shropshire member Owen Paterson and Lichfield parliamentarian Michael Fabricant – as well as newly elected Staffordshire Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Ellis.
Since Friday the Environment Secretary has met retailers, food producer groups and the Food Standards Agency twice to ask how “beef” products containing up to 100 per cent horsemeat were sold.
Retailers agreed to carry out “more and tougher testing” of beef products in the wake of widespread horsemeat contamination, the environment secretary added.
Test results will be published every three months by the FSA, Mr Patterson said.
His comments came as meat in some Tesco Everyday Value spaghetti bolognese, withdrawn from sale last week, was found to contain 60 per cent horsemeat.
All the UK’s major stores – Tesco, ASDA, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Co-op, Aldi, Lidl, Waitrose and Iceland – are affected in the crisis with a variety of beef burgers, lasagne, spaghetti bolognese and meatballs withdrawn from sale.
He said the British government was determined to “get to the bottom of it” and was working closely with other European governments, but he said a moratorium was not allowed under EU rules.
But he added: “It looks as if the problem is limited to processed food and it looks as if there has been criminal substitution of beef with horse.”
Mr Paterson told the Commons on Monday that it appeared “criminal activity” had been at the heart of the scandal with MPs debating the issue the following day.
On Wednesday, as Environment Secretary Paterson joined the Irish Republic, France, Romania, Luxembourg, Sweden and Poland in Brussels for a meeting of European countries linked to the horsemeat scandal, a slaughterhouse in Todmorden, West Yorkshire and a meat firm near Aberystwyth were raided by Food Standards Agency (FSA) officials supported by police.
The FSA said it was “highly likely” criminal activity was to blame for the contamination.
Mr Paterson said: “Clearly there are some people who believe they can get away with selling cheap meat and passing it off as something else. Our investigations will find them and they will feel the full force of the law.”