No sugar-coating Brexit pill at Oxford Farming Conference

Michael Gove
Michael Gove

Every so often you see a quotation and think the source really got that one right. This was the case this week at the Oxford Farming Conference, when an investment specialist from Belfast, Clive Black, described political life at Westminster as akin to watching a fish tank full of lunatics. He was referring to the farce that the Brexit process has become. Whether they voted remain or leave many people will share his view that politicians at Westminster have turned ‘the mother of parliaments into an ‘international embarrassment’.

From a local perspective all that can probably be said in their favour is that they are turning up in the Commons. By contrast, our MLAs and their staff are about to mark the two-year anniversary of being paid by taxpayers to do nothing through the most challenging economic times here for at least a generation.

At Oxford no-one could have accused the DEFRA minister, Michael Gove, of sugar-coating the Brexit pill. He promised farming and the food industry turbulent times, before both hopefully emerge on the other side to a brighter future outside the EU and the CAP. It was interesting when he spoke about the possibilities of new technology in farming that his focus was on robotics and computers, rather than the challenge of embracing more established global techniques to drive efficiency that might go down less well with voters. Gove was one of the staunchest advocates of leave back in 2016, but is now canvassing support for the Withdrawal Bill about to face a tough passage in the Commons. He deserves credit for his honesty about the turbulent times ahead, but there was no evidence of any such negatives when he was seeking backing for a no vote in 2016. Then he and his fellow MPs, who very publicly sought to sink David Cameron, promised nothing but happy times for agriculture outside the CAP.

If the commitment to leave the EU on March 29 is to stand, around 21 January is the last date for decisions to allow time to get legislation into place. One way or the other we are in the end game, even if the end is to delay the Brexit date. This is all far beyond anything farmers can hope to influence. But the one issue they need to make sure remains on the agenda is the future for support arrangements. It is unacceptable that 18 months on from the referendum vote there is still no plan in place. It is easy to forecast how the support debate will go. There is already pressure to come up with a scheme that focusses on the environment rather than food production. That is inevitable. There will also be pressure for any scheme to be time-limited and based around a belief that support can eventually be reduced.

The argument around support is that it is essential to ensure food security. However the error is that it is presented as a subsidy for farmers, which automatically makes it unpopular with taxpayers. In reality farm subsides allow food to be sold at prices below the commercial cost of producing it. This is down to farmers being able to accept a poor price because of support and that applies as much in the United States and other countries as it does in the EU. Farmers need to resist any macho talk that the UK industry can exist at world prices with minimal support.

That is not the case, but the suggestion would be seized upon by Westminster politicians. The twist is that if farmers argue that subsidies cannot be reduced, because they support lower food prices, politicians will then argue that over this they have a plan B. That would be to allow food imports without punitive tariffs. At a stroke that would reduce food prices, make it easier to secure trade deals – and close us out of the EU-27 food market completely. This is an issue over which the farming lobby will have to box cleverly as the full detail of Brexit implementation unfolds. In 2017, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) just under £500 billion was spent globally to support agriculture. The UK cannot unilaterally opt out of this support equation. That needs to be accepted by the Treasury and both the major political parties at Westminster. If that does not happen, Gove’s promised turbulent times for farming and food will become permanent rather than temporary.