Government in tatters over Brexit

Theresa May
Theresa May

For the first time since I began writing about events in Brussels it is impossible to guess where events are going. Over Brexit Brussels is behaving as normal; it has put a document on the table, but in London the government is tearing itself apart. Decisions are being taken that are often more about personal egos than the interests of the country and the millions of jobs that depend on a well-managed exit from the EU.

This is all akin to a divorce. It began in a civilised way back in 2016, but now on the UK side it is like a family where all the in-laws have become involved. Heart and hurt rather than common sense are driving decisions. For its part Brussels is making clear that it wants an amicable settlement and would still seek a reconciliation, which is not going to happen, while making clear that it is ready to park Brexit and move on with their own plans. In short, if the UK chooses to tear itself apart over its departure from the EU, that is a problem for London, rather than Brussels.

These are worrying times for farmers, no matter how they voted back in 2016. We have been told that the options on the table boil down to the agreement negotiated, no deal or no Brexit. On top of this the odds on an early general election have shortened, because a minority government cannot succeed if the party is divided. The referendum was meant to heal wounds in the Tory party over Europe, but instead it has turned cuts to haemorrhages and put the future of the party at risk.

Go behind the politics and an election would be a destabilising event for farmers. The commitment to continue farm support would no longer apply, and if a Labour government were returned that commitment may not be reinstated. That would reduce certainty to the direct payments now being paid, with no promises for next year or the future. All the negotiations around new green support policies for agriculture would also be up in the air. The Labour agenda for agriculture is much more radical. While the influence of mainstream farming with the Conservatives is not what it was, it would be non-existent with a Corbyn administration. It is largely irrelevant now, but any impact for agriculture here from the DUP’s deal with Conservatives is now dead in the water.

The other alternatives, for now are the agreement, no deal or no Brexit – although it is a theoretical possibility that a new prime minister or government could trigger a fresh negotiation with Brussels. However, I sense that in Brussels, like a parent with a recalcitrant child, they have had enough. They have parked the UK issue and moved on, ready to take the pain if the UK chooses to reject what is on the table. It is not quite take it or leave it, but not far from it. The no Brexit option is a non-starter, unless the pressure builds for a second referendum, and that seems unlikely.

A no deal outcome would be disastrous for farming – and that is the term used by all farm lobby organisation across the UK. It would put at risk supply sources for many inputs, but more importantly deny us access to our biggest, best and nearest market for food. It would also create the conditions for a hurried dismantling of import tariffs, so that a government in desperate need of trade deals could negotiate these quickly. It might say it would maintain standards, but we are all too wise and cynical to believe assurances from politicians. Conservative or Labour, none have any real interest in farming or food and would be happy to see factories processing imported food to be sold at lower prices on UK supermarket shelves. That is how weak the position of agriculture now is in the UK.

As to the draft withdrawal agreement it does offer reassurance for agriculture. It maintains trade from here and ensures access to the EU market; it maintains the principles of Fortress Europe against cheap food and is a good basis for negotiations when and if the UK leaves the customs union. Political grandstanding aplenty there is, but we all need to park the politics and read the document. As the old poem about Jim being eaten by the lion says, sometimes you need to hold on to nurse, for fear of something worse.