In a significant reshuffle at Downing Street, Thérèse Coffey has departed from her role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), with Steve Barclay stepping in to fill the position. This move is part of a broader cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, aiming to bolster support ahead of the 2024 general election.
Steve Barclay, the MP for North East Cambridgeshire, has a diverse political background, having previously served as the Health Secretary since 2022, as well as holding roles such as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Minister for the Cabinet Office, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.
Reflecting on her tenure, Coffey remarked, "Now is the right time to step back from government. I look forward to supporting the government from the backbenches and working towards a Conservative majority in the next election, which I believe is profoundly in the national interest." She highlighted her efforts in listening to farmers and her commitment to turning "ambition into action," particularly in ensuring a sustainable farming and food sector for the UK's long-term food security.
Coffey's time at Defra saw the introduction of the Environmental Improvement Plan and the Plant for Water initiative, contributing to the Global Biodiversity Framework. Despite these achievements, her tenure was not without controversy, particularly regarding Britain's watercourses' sewage issues, earning her the nickname 'Nellie the Effluent' from critics.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak expressed his gratitude to Coffey for her years of dedicated ministerial service. The reshuffle also saw Rachel Maclean leave her position as housing minister, marking the 16th change in this role over 13 years.
Industry reactions to Coffey's departure have been mixed. Graham Spencer from Plants for Europe commented on the limited impact of the reshuffle, citing the absence of relevant legislation in the King's Speech and the proximity of elections. Jonathan Sheppard, a former lobbyist, emphasised the need for clarity on environmental issues, particularly peat-free debates, and expressed a desire for an Environment Secretary who values horticulture at all levels.
Lee Stiles, secretary of the Lea Valley Regional Growers, critiqued Coffey's tenure, highlighting issues such as the sewage scandal, lack of interest in growers' concerns like energy prices, and the decline in UK vegetable production. Stiles pointed out the increase in imported food and the decline in British glasshouse vegetable production under Coffey's leadership, underscoring the challenges faced by British food producers and the impact on the nation's food security.
The reshuffle, including the replacement of Coffey by Barclay, reflects the government's strategic moves as it prepares for the upcoming general election, with significant implications for environmental and agricultural policies in the UK.