Downing Street wants to exploit foot-and-mouth: to vilify farmers and modernise farming

Peter Oborne

The principal merit, as far as Tony Blair is concerned, of the reshuffling of Downing Street staff after the general election is that dirty tricks have once again become deniable. By the end Alastair Campbell had become too large, too colourful and too hopelessly implicated in every piece of skulduggery that went on around the Prime Minister to carry credibility on the occasions when he tried to lie his way out of difficulty. Campbells replacement as press secretary, Godric Smith, is another matter. Smith is straightforward and decent. A career civil servant, he has nothing in common with the gangsters, rogues and cheats who have made made themselves at home in Blairs Downing Street. Partly for that reason, he genuinely hasnt got a clue whats been going on. That is why he has been able this week, with a clear conscience, to reject suggestions that there was anything fishy in the way that stories about millionaire farmers appeared in last Sundays press.

Few others shared Godric Smiths confidence. Ever since the foot-and-mouth epidemic began six months ago, people around Tony Blair have waged a vindictive, unscrupulous and unrelenting campaign to ensure that farmers rather than the government itself emerge as fall-guys for the calamity. Ministers have colluded in claims that farmers started the epidemic by not taking proper precautions, that they have ripped off the tax-payer by overcharging for the clean-up operation, and even that farmers have been deliberately spreading the disease. And now we have this grotesque smear that the epidemic has turned stock-owners into millionaires.

It is impossible to prove one way or another whether ministers inspired the Sunday Times story, though internal evidence suggests that they did. What is beyond question is that the government machine deliberately fanned the flames. Godric Smith, in his wonderful innocence, blandly asserts that departmental press officers did nothing more than answer reporters questions. But the government information service is no longer the cheerfully incompetent but on the whole neutral operation that served the Conservatives for 18 years and might have been happy to answer questions in the unlikely event that it was capable of finding the answers. One of the first things that New Labour did on winning power was to make the information service harder, more professional  and stuffed with party henchmen. Press officers under New Labour never release information without a reason. Last weekend they could not have been more helpful. Information was available, even though (as later emerged) the money has not yet been paid out, and the final decision about compensation not even been made in most cases. One Sunday editor said, We tried to follow up four stories. We only succeeded with foot-and-mouth. The press officer came back to us instantly and did not even ask what story we were chasing before plying us with information.

The purpose of this disreputable operation is obvious. One of the most unpleasant characteristics of New Labour is its readiness to demonise vulnerable groups. The tactics on display last week have already been tried out on so-called fat-cats, hospital consultants and lorry drivers. In a loathsome ploy, Downing Street is determined to harness urban hostility to and incomprehension of the countryside in order to win the public-relations battle and isolate agricultural people. The smear in the Sunday papers was a classic softening-up exercise for Mondays announcement that Lord Haskins, head of Northern Foods and a Downing Street crony, is to take charge of the rural recovery programme. This was an amazing appointment. Putting a supermarket boss in charge of the countryside is like making Reynard the Fox national co-ordinator for chicken coops. Lord Haskins has never made any secret of his contempt for British farmers, and allowing him to determine their fortunes at a time when agriculture is struggling to emerge from its greatest setback since the agricultural depression of the 1870s is an act of open aggression. It is a signal that Downing Street is determined to exploit foot-and-mouth to vilify farmers and then  to use Tony Blairs favourite and ever so menacing word  modernise farming practices in Britain.

What the Prime Minister will not do, however, is give in to calls for an independent public inquiry into the disaster. There are pressing questions of overwhelming public interest which cry out for answers. We do not know why foot-and-mouth turned into an epidemic in Britain, while it was easily contained in other countries. We need to know why it started, whether it was waste food from a Chinese restaurant (a claim fostered for several weeks but ultimately denied by government) or some other source. We do not know whether mass culling made a real difference, or whether it was merely a short-term ploy designed to suit the governments electoral timetable. We do not know the truth about vaccination. We do not know whether burning or burial was the best solution. We have to know the answers to these questions so that we can learn the lessons and ensure that nothing comparable happens again.

Just before the parliamentary recess the Prime Minister claimed in the Commons that the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons shared his reservations about a full-scale inquiry. The current edition of the Veterinary Record makes a nonsense of that assertion. A letter from Barry Johnson and Bob Michell, past president of the RCVS, expresses concern about the repeated misrepresentation in parliament of what the RCVS council called for in June. The inquiry, write Johnson and Michell, must be free to pursue all aspects, including the political aspects, with the aim of learning lessons for the future.

The shameful suspicion is that Tony Blair is scared witless of an independent inquiry because he fears that it will show that the real blame lies with incompetence and venality in government, and nowhere near the farmers that Downing Street is so keen to smear. Any well-founded inquiry into how the epidemic spread so fast is bound to ask why ministers ignored warnings that food was being smuggled into Britain from infected countries, why the government was so slow to react when the crisis started, why carcasses were left to rot in fields, why the army was only brought in after foot-and-mouth had been raging for six weeks, and how ministers constantly came to make false assurances that all was well. The foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001 may yet become as damaging for Tony Blair as arms-to-Iraq was for John Major.