There’s something mischievous about Lord Rooker. “Whatever you do, don’t get your notepad out in here,” he whispers as we take our seats in the Lords’ Chamber. “No journalists allowed,” he winks.
It’s spectacular, albeit with a lot of grey on the benches (mainly suits and hair). I ask Rooker if the Lords has changed much since he was conferred a life peerage in 2001. “It’s getting more diverse, younger too.” He looks around, as if seeing it through my eyes. “Well, just about. When I joined there wasn’t even a women’s toilet.”
Jeff Rooker was elected Labour MP for the north Birmingham constituency of Perry Barr in 1974, a seat he held for 27 years. He served as minister in six government departments between 1997 and 2013, twice holding the agriculture portfolio. He signed the order to create AHDB in 2008, and was appointed chairman of the Food Standards Agency in 2009.
As voters’ confidence in politics and politicians is steadily eroded by the attrition of Brexit there’s something reassuring about Rooker’s unwavering sense of duty and involvement with the mechanics of government. As a member of the House of Lords’ EU Exit sub-committee, he is forensic in questioning the government’s handling of Brexit, food legislation and biosecurity. As he describes it, “bringing some corporate memory back to the job of monitoring government.”
“An unplanned, disorderly Brexit could have a big impact on UK animal and plant health,” he says, speaking before Boris Johnson’s controversial move last week to suspend Parliament. “It’s all very well ministers saying we won’t diminish standards in future trade deals, but we need to look beyond the headlines of hormone treated-beef and chlorine-washed chicken and think about risk assessment and management more broadly.”
Currently, almost 50 pests and diseases in Europe pose a threat to the UK’s economy, food safety and ecology. Post-Brexit, the FSA will lose its membership of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and its seat at the EU Standing Committee. That is something that concerns Rooker greatly: “EFSA issues 3,000 notices a year on biosecurity and animal health. It’s fundamental that we remain part of that system.”
Politicians are yet to grant the FSA the new powers it needs to make risk management decisions in place of the European Commission. Without them, all decisions will have to go through the minister for health. In Rooker’s view this will compromise the FSA, as the rationale for its creation was to depoliticise food safety.
“This is a blatant land-grab opportunity by government, which wants to get its fingers back in the food-safety pie,” he says. “Consumers trust the FSA to tell them the truth, more than elected politicians.”
Despite his longevity as an MP, Rooker admits that politics didn’t always come naturally to him. “I felt very uncomfortable in the early years. Debates were frightening, even hostile. I was shy, lacked confidence and felt intimidated by these political stars around me. Then I rebelled and everything changed.”
In 1977, then a fledgling backbench MP, Rooker made his name alongside fellow MP Audrey Wise. They secured a controversial amendment to the budget which saw personal tax allowances rise in line with the rate of inflation, thereby increasing the non-taxable income threshold. Dubbed Rooker-Wise, the amendment is still law today.
When we spoke, Jeremy Corbyn was attempting to rally parliamentary support for a no-confidence vote in the Prime Minister, and I ask Rooker how he feels about the Labour Party today. “That depends on which party you’re referring to. The one I think I still belong to, or the one Corbyn has created?”
He flips out his wallet and extracts a folded-up piece of paper. It’s the transcript of a statement Rooker gave in the Lords on 2 December 2015. In another roguish act, Rooker used a debate on UK military action in Syria to shoehorn in a diatribe about Corbyn. In it he states: “…there are members of Cabinet who I would trust more to be Prime Minister than my own party leader. We need to get rid of him… and have a leader fit and proper to offer themselves as our Prime Minister”.
“I carry this around with me at all times,” he says. Not only that, he has copies. I laugh as he furnishes me with one. “You keep that,” he smiles.
The state of the Labour party clearly saddens Rooker. He seems bewildered and angry at what has happened to ‘his’ party. Labour’s National Executive Committee provides further cause for concern. “It’s full of nasty bastards. Jeremy has surrounded himself with public school boys and ex-communists. Anti-Semitism has been dealt with appallingly, and Labour’s dancing around on Brexit policy is preposterous. That’s not the party I’m in.
“Corbyn needs to step down, but the risk at the moment is that we’d end up with [deputy leader] John McDonnell, or some other fruitcake. The trigger system to stand must change before we have a Labour leadership contest.” Labour’s rules state that anyone wishing to challenge a sitting leader needs the backing of 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs.
In Rooker’s view a true realignment of UK politics will only come about if both parties split and form a genuine opposition. “The chance of a Tory party split is tiny, but it’s the biggest it’s ever been. They are the oldest political party in the world and their secret weapon is loyalty, but it’s being pushed to absolute breaking point.”
There’s something refreshing about Rooker’s directness. He has nothing to lose by telling it as he sees it. His stance on Brexit is equally clear. “The Lords would stop Brexit if it could; 80 per cent of us voted Remain,” he says confidently.
‘We’ll have our day on Brexit. The Withdrawal Bill will have to come to the Lords and, when it does, we’ll want an amendment that gives the public their say with a second referendum. It’ll be up to the Commons totake it out. The question is, will they have the majority to do it? My bet is we won’t leave.”