Election brings no certainty

Michael Gove
Michael Gove

If politics were fiction in the style of the West Wing or House of Cards, current events would be dubbed too fanciful.

The general election result has confirmed that opinion polls are as scientific as the old soothsayers that based their judgement on the entrails of chickens. As far as agriculture is concerned the outcome has done nothing to create the certainty farmers want. Hopefully, in the corridors of power, at Westminster the DUP will use its influence behind the scenes to ensure the interests of the UK regions, and not just England, are factored into a new UK farm policy.

The appointment of Michael Gove as the new DEFRA minister was another surprise in the saga of political twists and turns. Farmers will certainly not regret Andrea Leadsom being no longer in that job. She never engaged with the task of creating a new agricultural policy, and the past year has been a wasted opportunity. It is bizarre that the EU, with 27 member states to deal with, is so much further ahead with its post-2020 CAP plans than the UK is with the simpler task of creating a policy that delivers a vibrant agriculture, quality food and a well managed countryside.

On that basis Michael Gove has to be an improvement. He comes to the post as one of the big beasts of politics. He has a controversial reputation from his time as education minister, and as a result of how he stabbed Boris Johnson in the back in the Tory leadership election last July. That is now water under the political bridge. Hopefully from his time in education he may have learned that his way is not necessarily the right way, and that he does need to heed the advice of experts. He will certainly need to do so in agriculture. He comes to the job with no knowledge of farming and a limited knowledge of the environment. The constituency he represents is prosperous, urban and has been identified as the most right of centre in the UK. It is, in short, the ultimate safe Tory seat.

Gove was born in Edinburgh, but adopted by a family from Aberdeen. They were members of the Labour party, as was he before becoming a Conservative political activist at university. In his first interviews he has shown a recognition of the need for progress on a new farm policy to replace the CAP. He says he is in listening mode but the challenge, so far as farmers are concerned, is not just to listen, but to hear what people are saying. As we well know here those outcomes are not necessarily the same. Gove is bright and articulate with real political influence. That will be needed if he is to convince the Treasury and other cabinet members of the need to support agriculture. This will involve phasing out direct payments, and then replacing them with an approach that will make UK farming globally competitive.

If Gove brings the positives of political power and intellect to DEFRA there are also some caveats. He has always been a euro-sceptic, but will have to find ways to work with other EU farm ministers until Brexit. However he is personable enough to get around that. A bigger worry is whether his euro-scepticism extends to supporting a hard Brexit and our exit from the single market. Gove seems to be cooling his rhetoric more than others about the merits of a hard Brexit. As politics settle, time will tell whether that is the case, or just his reaction to a shock general election result.

Another issue is that Gove is a nakedly ambitious politician. He will still have his eyes on the prize of leading the Conservatives, and will be easily diverted from DEFRA duties to involve himself in national issues. That is a double-edged sword for agriculture. It means he has real influence, but there is a real danger he will lose focus on what he needs to do at DEFRA. If however he sees creating a dynamic agriculture as a challenge, he will do his best to deliver it. As to certainty, we know CAP direct payments will continue until 2020. In theory the same level of support will go to farming for the term of this parliament, which should be 2022, but may be a lot shorter. As the old Chinese saying goes, it seems we are cursed to live in interesting times.