Speculation is rife that the Government is wavering over support for the cull of badgers.
In a series of about turns yesterday, witnessed at first hand by Western Daily Press lobby correspondent Matthew George, the Secretary of State at Defra Owen Paterson first promised interviews to journalists on the cull, then cancelled them – promising "an announcement" – then said the announcement was off but the interviews would still not be taking place.
The word in the Westminster village, always awash with claim and counter-claim about what the Government will do next, was that fears about the cost of the cull, along with widespread and vociferous opposition from many quarters had provoked a wobble among ministers. It is true that arguments about the cost of this proposition have been well made, by eminent academics who have no axe to grind on either side of this fractious countryside debate.
But this is an issue upon which a U-turn is the last thing the Government needs. It is also the last thing the people who live and earn a living in the countryside need either. The culls due to go ahead in Gloucestershire and Somerset are pilots, designed to show if shooting badgers as they forage in the woods can work efficiently and humanely. To cancel them at this stage would be the height of folly.
Farmers need to see the curse of bovine tuberculosis tackled and resolved. To that end, they need to see action – firm action – and leadership from the Government. They have been promised it, and they have in Mr Paterson – or so they believe – a minister who knows about the countryside and knows about farming, and understands how the two work together. But yesterday's muddled management of his media arrangements does nothing to help to calm the frayed nerves of dairy producers who know how devastating bovine TB can be.
Let's be clear, after yesterday's Westminster wobble, the Government was quite clear that nothing had changed and the cull will be going ahead. The NFU tells us exactly the same. We hope they are both right. If not, it would be the most humiliating U-turn yet for the coalition Government.