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Caroline Spelman

Position: Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2010

Last Updated: Friday, February 11th, 2011

Caroline Spelman is far from being the most popular Cabinet minister among Conservative backbenchers at the moment. In fact, among Tory MPs she is probably by far the least popular right now.

This is because the Defra plans to sell off state-owned forests – on which Spelman, as Secretary of State, has signalled at least a temporary retreat today – have collectively generated tens of thousands of letters from constituents, dealing with which has been taking up more time for MPs and their staff than they ever could have foreseen.

Whilst by no means all Tory MPs were opposed to the policy, it had been incredibly badly sold and communicated, and reports of the meetings Spelman held with groups of concerned MPs suggest that her “strident and hectoring manner”, in the words of one who attended such a session, also did her no favours.

Born in Hertfordshire in 1958, she read European Studies at London University, after which she worked for the National Farmers Union as its Sugar Beet commodity secretary. She then pursued her twin interests in agriculture and matters European working at the International Confederation of European Beetgrowers in Paris before going freelance as a consultant on agricultural matters in 1989.

Her active interest in politics was also blooming, since she fought the safe Labour seat of Bassetlaw at the 1992 general election and also did a spell working for a Tory MEP in the early 1990s.

She had not been selected for a seat for the 1997 general election, but the untimely death of Meriden MP Iain Mills a matter of weeks before the contest created a vacancy in the safe seat and Spelman won the selection.

She entered the Commons with a 3-figure majority (rather than the 5-figure majority enjoyed by her predecessor) but as one of only five new women MPs was promoted to the Whips Office within a year and has been a frontbencher ever since in one guise or another. 

She was a junior health spokesman between 1999 and 2001, but Iain Duncan Smith promoted her to the shadow cabinet with the international development portfolio. Michael Howard successively gave her the environment and local government briefs.

In that latter role she found herself shadowing John Prescott – a post she retained once David Cameron was elected leader and until he surprised many by sending her to Tory HQ in 2007 to replace Francis Maude as party chairman.

She spent 18 months in that role and did not make a huge impression on the party, not least because for much of that time she found herself distracted by having to bat off allegations that she had broken Commons rules by using expenses to pay her children’s nanny when she had first been elected to Parliament.

The anti-sleaze watchdog eventually concluded that she had broken the rules – unintentionally – and she had to repay £9,600.

By the time that issue had been resolved, she had done a job swap with Eric Pickles, who went to CCHQ, and she returned to her old local government brief; but on the election of the Coalition Government, she was rewarded with the post of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary – allowing her to use much of her pre-parliamentary knowledge and expertise.

There is no doubting that Spelman’s politics originate from the pro-European left of the party. She declared for Ken Clarke in the 1997 leadership election but was strangely reticent to identify her pick at any of the subsequent contests and publicly has never been especially factional.

She is clearly a family-oriented person – she and her husband have two sons and a daughter – and has previously backed tax breaks for non-working spouses. Her husband, Mark, was on the Conservative Party’s list for the West Midlands region at the 2009 European Parliament election. 

Jonathan Isaby

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