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Thursday, 10 May, 2001, 22:18 GMT
Tim Yeo: Shadow agriculture minister

Foot-and-mouth disease has put Tim Yeo back into the political spotlight.

The shadow agriculture minister is generally seen as having had a "good war", with some press reports now tipping him as the next Conservative Party chairman.

His cool handling of the Tory response to the epidemic even earned on-air plaudits from the BBC presenter, Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman.

The journalist, not known for praising politicians, told Mr Yeo: "You've been so far ahead of the Ministry of Agriculture on this."

Commons attacks

Some commentators thought he went too far in his accusation that ministers were "negligent" in their approach to the crisis.

But Mr Yeo's Commons attacks delighted Tory MPs.

His much-praised high profile during the crisis was in marked contrast to his first brush with public attention in 1993 - as the first major casualty of the "back to basics" drive that saw a succession of Conservatives forced to resign from office.

More recently, he was one of the eight Tory shadow cabinet members who admitted to having smoked cannabis when young - following Ann Widdecombe's announcement of a hardline "zero-tolerance" policy towards drug users.

Back to basics

But 1993 was a low point for Mr Yeo, the year when Tory Prime Minister John Major was searching for a theme for an administration accused by all sides of drift and lack of purpose, and hit upon "Back to Basics".

To the tabloid press, the new theme acted as a green light for newspapers to see if the private lives of members of the government matched the standards it now backed.

The result was an administration swiftly beset by a series of sex and financial scandals.

In Mr Yeo's case, he had fathered a child with a young Tory councillor, Julia Stent. It later emerged that he also had a daughter conceived when he was an unmarried student.

Pressure from his own local Conservative Association played a significant part in his eventual resignation as environment minister.

But Mr Yeo has since bounced back.

The 1997 election saw him retain his South Suffolk seat with a majority of just over 4,000.

He backed William Hague in the subsequent Tory leadership contest and was rewarded with a role on the shadow front bench as an environment spokesman.


A year later he was promoted to the shadow cabinet as agriculture spokesman.

In that role he urged a unilateral embargo on imports of French beef after French authorities announced a ban on T-bone steaks - and a moratorium on the use of animal products in livestock feed

BSE infected cows
BSE and other farming problems ensured a higher profile for the agriculture brief
As a government minister when the existence and dangers of BSE first started to appear on the horizon, he was one of several Tories to issue an apology when the report of the public inquiry into the disease was published in October 2000.

He said the report was "clear, comprehensive and, so far as I can judge, fair".

"I agree with the report that we must avoid judging individuals with the benefit of hindsight," he said.

"Nevertheless, I recognise that mistakes were made some of which have tragic consequences and I accept the criticisms that are made in the report."

One Nation reputation

Educated at Charterhouse and Cambridge, Mr Yeo has a reputation as a left-leaning, One Nation Tory. In the 1990 contest to succeed Margaret Thatcher, he backed former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd.

Despite that and his pro-European past, he has made the transition to Mr Hague's front bench.

Mr Yeo's route into politics was via the City where he had a successful career working for an American bank before going on to become director of the Spastics Society (now known as Scope).

Having run against future Labour leader Neil Kinnock in his safe seat of Bedwellty in 1974, Mr Yeo was eventually selected for South Suffolk in time to enter the Commons at the 1983 election.



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