WORDS: PAUL WAUGH AND SAM MACRORY
When the horsemeat scandal broke earlier this year, Mary Creagh had to stop eating, literally mid-forkful, as she tucked into her homemade spag bol.
The Shadow Environment Secretary remembers the moment precisely because she and her team had gathered for their post-Christmas dinner at her home in Islington on January 15th.
“We were all sitting round, and we had Heston [Blumenthal]’s fantastic spaghetti, and then suddenly someone’s pager went. They went: ‘Turn on the television, now!’ I was like, ‘It’s a bit antisocial, we’re having our Christmas party, and it was ‘No, no. Horse in burgers! Horse in burgers!’”
Luckily Creagh’s bolognese contained shin of beef (a very economical cut) bought, and minced before her eyes, in a butcher’s in her Wakefield constituency. But as the shadow Defra team switched on the television the consequences were clear.
“We were just like… here we go, it’s another ‘Defra madness moment’, it’s going to be another mad month,” Creagh recalls. With headlines rather than Heston being digested, Creagh halted the party as her team worked out “what does this mean, and how are we going to deal with it?”. “From that 15th of January moment we haven’t really stopped. That [bolognese] was the last thing I cooked properly,” she adds.
She spent the following week racing from meeting to meeting and becoming a permanent fixture across the airwaves, an energetic performance in sharp contrast to Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State.
“His decision to go back home once the Findus beef lasagne was found, I think was a defining decision in his political career and I think that will have consequences down the line. When you’ve got Downing Street briefing that the Secretary of State is behind his desk dealing with the crisis and then people tweeting that he’s actually on a train coming back from Shropshire, ordered back to London, that’s not a great start to dealing with a crisis. And then Sky News tracks down David Heath out for a walk in his constituency – I can’t understand the conversations that took place from ministerial departments.”
The Findus finding, says Creagh, was “the nuclear button… so to think that you could go off and have a normal weekend back in the constituency...”
However, Paterson’s lethargy was to Creagh’s advantage, and she admits that she was “maybe 24 hours ahead” by the time the Environment Secretary called a meeting on the Saturday.
As Government Ministers can testify, nothing can normally come between a ravenous Mary Creagh and her red meat. And Creagh has certainly had plenty of ‘Defra madness moments’ since she was first catapulted into the Shadow Cabinet by Ed Miliband back in 2010. Widely seen as having had a ‘good war’ over beef, she has also been relentless in her harrying of Ministers over everything from the forests sell-off to flooding and badger culls.
So, how much of this is effective Opposition and how much Government shambles?
“It’s all down to me!” she jokes, bursting into one of her trademark laughs. But there is a serious point about how she’s used both Parliament and the media to maximum effect. Creagh’s proactive approach to the art of opposition politics has repeatedly forced the Government into retreat or even U-turn.
She has the record for the highest number of urgent questions granted by the Speaker. “Seven in my two, two and a bit years. I had a little joke on Twitter, because people are like, ‘How come, how come?’. I said, ‘It’s really simple. I ask questions that are urgent.’ Genuinely, you know, news-worthy, the things that people want answered.”
“But also I shadow Defra, and that’s the other part of the answer – the Secretaries of State that they’ve had. The political decisions that have been made around Defra, I think have not been of the highest quality.”
Elected to Parliament in Wakefield in 2005, Creagh still retains the energy of a new-intaker. She served in the Whips office in the dog days of the last Labour Government, but is the first to concede it was a big step up to Shadow Cabinet. Fortunately, her baptism of fire coincided with the forests sell-off row. “It was clear it was catastrophically stupid and was going to cause all sorts of problems.
When I stood up and moved our Opposition day debate, I’d been up in the Shadow Cabinet I think about five months. It was the first time I’d ever stood at the Despatch Box, you know, as a Shadow Minister, so it was, it was one of those moments where you think, ‘Right. Let’s see what I’m made of.’ But I did feel like I knew everything about this subject that there is to know and I can handle it. And the fact that all of the Tories were parroting the Government line and then trooping through the lobbies and then literally a couple of weeks later came the U-turn. I think it was a pivotal moment for the Government, because all the backbenchers suddenly thought, ‘Wait a minute, we were told that this was, you know, trust the Government and we’re right’, and then, suddenly we’re all writing letters to our constituencies saying, ‘Sorry, we got it wrong’.”
Creagh says that the forests policy was “emblematic” of decision-making at Defra. She says floods policy is another area that typified the department’s confused approach, with a combination of cuts and indecision in response to one of the biggest environmental challenges facing the country. Cuts to the capital budget are “really short-sighted, given that flooding is the greatest risk that the UK faces from climate change”. “There were 40,000 homes flooded in 2007. It was the biggest civil emergency since the Second World War.”
Delays on a deal with the insurance industry are hitting thousands of homeowners, she says. “We’d need to see the detail but in principle we think that Government has a duty to step in. We would need it with legislation and the statement of principles runs out on the 30th of June. So you’re going to have a serious amount of people who are going to be blighted because of this and, for most people, their home is their biggest capital asset, so this is what they’ve worked for all their lives.”
Creagh says she “would never write off a department”, and insists that Defra “worked well under [Labour Environment Secretaries] David Miliband and Hilary Benn”, but she believes that Defra’s effectiveness has been badly hit by budget cuts.
“Caroline Spelman’s agreement to cut a third of her budget is a sort of landmine that she has planted for any of her successors. It’s going to keep exploding in their faces,” she states.
But it’s not just the bottom line: Creagh says this Government is too willing to slash regulation.
“If you’re not going to use money then you have to use regulation, you have to make laws. I think the problem has been…basically Conservative ideology in Defra has effectively neutered it and prevented it from playing its part in the economic recovery in the way I think it could have done,” she argues, citing Spelman’s decision to sign up for minimum waste targets and the 2011 decision to block EU-wide food labelling.
With Paterson now calling for tighter labelling, once again horsemeat rears its ugly head. Creagh is convinced that the state must play a role in securing safety in the food chain. “Oh God – of course. Only Government can play that role because the private sector will never do it. There will always be a competition on price. It has to be Government, and to be fair, the private sector and retailers are now looking at Government.”
But not all in the same way: Iceland CEO Malcolm Walker says cheap meat is the result of cost-cutting measures brought in by local authorities. “Well, he’s wrong,” Creagh interjects – and it’s clear that relations with Iceland remain frosty. “I’m going to have to self-censor myself… No, look, councils have had their budget cut by 27%… you can’t say, ‘It’s your fault for wanting a lower price’. It’s not people’s fault for being poor, on low incomes as cost of living rises and their wages stagnate, it’s not people’s fault for wanting to feed their children red meat, which is what a beef burger is.”
Creagh pauses to make something quite clear. “I love beef burgers.” And like any burger-hungry punter, she’s on the lookout for a good deal.
“Don’t blame people if they go into a supermarket and they find that they can buy two packs of four beefburgers for three quid. Bingo! You know, I like an offer, I’m up there. I’m not about blaming people on low incomes and I’m not about blaming councils.”
And if it’s not the fault of councils or shoppers, then that means retailers and suppliers must put their stocks and shelves in order. “All of them, supermarkets and retailers, are going to have to be much, much cuter in this, they’re going to have to ask a lot more questions, they’re going to have to adjust more.”
But doesn’t that mean that food prices will rise and the least well-off will suffer? Creagh shakes her head at this “middle class fallacy” and points to the financial hit which supermarkets have taken on the cost of milk without raising the price of a pint.
“I am confident in our retail sector that they will actually offer better products in the future at competitive prices for families and they are not going to put themselves out of business by not doing that. It’s the kind of, well, ‘Poor people have just got to spend more money. Well no, actually. Low income families deserve the same food safety and food labelling guarantees as everybody does and it shouldn’t matter whether you are buying frozen beef burgers from Iceland. They will still be able to buy good value burgers, horse free, from their favourite supermarkets.”
And it’s not just because a good-value, horse-free burger, is good sustenance. “We need to keep eating beef burgers,” Creagh declares, arguing: “In order for the middle class to enjoy – this is a terrible thing to say – and eat their prime fillet of beef, hung for 28 days, we’ve got to be able to use the bottom, which is the cheaper cuts. Using all of the animal, you reduce the prices and the cost the whole of the animal, so you keep it affordable.”
Given her fierce attacks on the meat issue, some have wondered if Creagh is a vegetarian. But she recoils in horror at the thought: “No! No, no, no. We travel long distances for a venison burger in our house. I was vegetarian for about a year when I was about 15. And then I couldn’t boil an egg, it took me four goes to boil an egg and I got so bored of trying to cook for myself that I went back to meat eating. I had a very sensible mother, my mum would do carrots, potatoes, and sausages/bacon, every day. I don’t eat carrots any more, never again.”
But would she eat horse, knowingly? “Horse is industrial by-product. Once you know that you’ll never touch it again. They are by-products of the racing industry, they are not fed as food animals. I like to know where it’s from, who’s been looking after it, what it was called.”
In 2010, Labour won on average just 18% of the vote in the 150 or so most rural constituencies. There is a long way to go before the party can reclaim that ground, but Creagh says it now at least has a “permission to be heard” again.
The Shadow Secretary says that foxhunting demos were “a kind of luxury protest, to talk about what you do at the weekends”. She is more interested in targeting the ‘squeezed middle’. “When people talk about rural areas, I think people in rural areas who are living on low incomes... it’s almost invisible poverty. Talking about the cost of living is something that resonates in all areas, particularly rural ones.”
But would she repeal any repeal of foxhunting? “I think Owen’s got other things on his mind right now. If he can find space on the legislative timetable with sorting out the horsemeat industry, with protecting flood insurance and microchipping dogs, I think foxhunting is way down his ministerial list right now. They won’t get it through. Ask me when we’ve lost the vote, come back and ask me then.”
Despite her Islington home base and distinctly urban seat of Wakefield, she insists that the countryside and the challenges of rural life are in her genes.
“My granddad was a cattle farmer in Northern Ireland… and my mum grew up in a house about the size of this room, with no running water, no toilet, no electricity, so I don’t need to be told about rural poverty,” she states, looking back at her Fermanagh roots. “I took my son back to see granny’s house and he could not believe it because it’s now being used as a hay barn but they were five children and two adults living in that house. And it was a really hard existence. It was in this tiny village and it was a mile’s walk outside this tiny village, barefoot, to school. I sort of feel I’m one generation away from that.”
Creagh’s uncle also worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, and she says she has “always been hoiked around farms in Ireland, visiting relatives who had farms”.
However, the farming background is not something she chooses to “use” in arguments, with Creagh freely admitting that “I don’t know about modern farming methods, I’m not on a farm, I don’t pretend to know about those things.” Instead, she has another approach: “I do sit and listen to people. I can take in a lot of information. I have the privilege in this position of getting people coming to talk to me about things, showing me things, wanting to share things with me and wanting to make good policy on their behalf.”
Creagh repeatedly points out that the horsemeat saga, not least the Brits calling in Europol, has proved the value of the EU. A former Chair of the Labour Movement for Europe, and Brussels staffer, she says the PM’s in-out referendum pledge is “not a sensible place for the country to be in”. She points out: “It’s a fantasy, that’s what it is, a Cameron right-wing fantasy to keep the right wing happy and to stave off the UKIP vote.”
One of the Commons campaign team for David Miliband’s leadership bid, Creagh is still a fan. “It’s clear that he still has enormous potential and I’m sure will play a part in our Party’s future. David is a politician of immense talent and intellect.”
She is nevertheless full of praise for his brother Ed. But what about her own ambitions? Some have looked at her recent impressive hits on the Government and started wondering where she should go next. Creagh has an almost perfect Labour CV: a media-savvy 45-year-old daughter of Irish immigrants, schooled at a comprehensive, followed by Oxford, LSE and Brussels, Cranfield School of Management, council group leader, while nurturing two children and a safe Labour seat. So would the leadership be an option one day?
She laughs. “Don’t be daft, I want a quiet life!” That’s not exactly a denial, particularly given her less than quiet life at present. “I’m looking at Ed being the next Prime Minister. I’ve got the world’s best team…There’s two years to the election and we are going to get out there and we are going to be on the Tories’ case every single day. And win back the trust of the British people wherever we live and then demonstrate we can make a better environment, a better food system, put the investment into protecting people from floods, [put the] investment into the national parks, the things that we all want to do to protect the environment to hand it on to the next generation. Those are the things that I think get me excited about the next four to five years. Any talk after that is a long way down the line.”
Getting to the top in politics is notoriously harder for women MPs and with the Rennard affair the talk of Westminster, it’s worth asking if she too has experienced any harassment. “Women who came in in ’97 told me stories of horrible jokes by men when they got up to speak and ‘Melon jokes’ and that sort of stuff. 2005 is my intake, our generation, the fortysomethings – absolutely not a squeak. Most of the relationships that seem to take place here are between consenting adults.”
“It’s a cultural thing, it’s a generational thing. I think it’s to do with power and age and youth. I’m the wrong age to be sexually harassed now but I’m not saying it wouldn’t be a problem for a twentysomething researcher starting off. It’s a kind of, ‘If you want a job, these are the hoops and you know...’”
But Creagh insists she has not personally had any trouble. “I was having a chat after Shadow Cabinet about this and I have a theory which is [that] nobody in the Labour Party has ever sexually harassed me because they would get a punch in the face if they did. Lots of women round the table…were like ‘yeah’.”
Away from the combat of the Commons, Creagh’s busy life means her main R&R are cooking and gardening in her small vegetable plot in London, comprising fruit trees and chard. The vegetables are fine, but you can tell that in the end it’s the meat that she’s interested in, literally and politically.
The Westminster joke about Chris Huhne was that he was a carnivore in a party of herbivores. Labour has its share of meat-eaters, yet despite her fondness for foxes, it’s clear that few are as keen on Tory big game hunting as Mary Helen Creagh.
Creagh on.....why Letwin leads on flood policy
“I think Owen [Paterson], probably, was more keen on a free market solution. Flood insurance for climate change is going to require some sort of Government intervention and I don’t know how comfortable he was with that, but it’s clear that the talks were not progressing.”
“I’m interested in how this horsemeat scandal could hopefully provide a lifeline to some of the smaller meat producers and the processing plants who have been squeezed out by the big boys. They were winning on price because they were cheating with what was going in.”
Creagh on.....Government procurement of food
“Procurement standards have not worked as well as they should have done. We have to be careful about what we do with state contracts. Having said that, the power of that public money to be used to support good food as opposed to always just being used in the race for the bottom – the argument for that is probably long overdue.”
Creagh on.....getting her job
”I got the call and I was really nervous. I was thinking ’Defra! That’s a big job. I do know a lot about food but I don’t know much about the rest’. But I’ve spent two years learning about it.”
Creagh on.....adulterated food
“This has been going on since 1850. There will always be people out to cheat other people over food and over everything, whether it’s appliances or smartphones or whatever. And it will always be Government’s role: the state has to protect people.”