If anyone bids the prime minister, Theresa May, a Happy Christmas, she will be tempted to look to see if they are making fun at her expense.
With the gloss coming off the Brexit deal she reached in Brussels just over a week ago, and with members of her own party inflicting an embarrassing defeat over her flagship Brexit bill in parliament, happy must be the last thing she is feeling. As she contemplates the new year she must have even less cause to be optimistic. As a result, Happy New Year greetings will as a result sound as hollow as Christmas wishes.
No-one could have imagined back in June last year, after the Brexit referendum vote, that things would turn out like this. One prime minister gone; a disastrous election for the Conservatives and now a prime minister just about clinging on to power is beyond the fiction of a book like House of Cards. The result is uncertainty and instability, and that is the last thing any industry, and farming in particular, needs as it contemplates how to ensure a profitable future after Brexit.
Before civil war broke out again within the Conservative party over parliament having a vote on the final Brexit negotiation ministers were at pains to claim what had been achieved with the European Commission was a good outcome. This was despite no assurances about trade, a £39 billion bill, continued free movement of people for the foreseeable future and UK courts still having to heed European law. This is heady politics far beyond agriculture, but it is losing out in the Westminster political game.
Michael Gove, the DEFRA Secretary and an arch-Brexiteer appears to be out to convert those on the left to accept that Brexit is a workable idea. This week he used a visit to a dog’s home to claim that outside the EU the UK will have tougher animal welfare legislation. That could well include a ban on the live export of livestock. He is also taking every opportunity to promise that the UK will do even more for the environment than was the case when we were in the EU. His vision for a green Brexit is being pushed hard, and that will continue until the day Theresa May trips and Gove again becomes a potential Conservative leadership candidate.
What is missing from Gove is any vision about a future for farming. This is perhaps because he believes there is no need for a Brexit charm offensive with farmers, on grounds that if polls were right a majority voted for Brexit. Despite the present uncertainty there is no evidence farmers who did so have changed their minds. On that basis it makes sense for Gove to focus his political fire-power on those in the environmental lobby and elsewhere that have always had doubts about Brexit.
There is no firm evidence that he accepts the link between support for farming, particularly family farms, and the delivery of his green Brexit plan. He needs to acknowledge the economic reality that farmers are the biggest landowners in rural areas, and that as such they are they only people equipped to be custodians of the countryside. The logical extension of that is that only farmers can deliver green outcomes. They can only do that if a support structure to allow them to compete with subsidised farmers elsewhere remains in place. Despite a one-sided £40 billion payment to the EU we can still afford to support agriculture, and Gove needs to come up with a sensible plan to do so as part of his self-styled green revolution.
What has been agreed to date with Brussels is simply approval to move negotiations to the next stage, when trade will dominate. The brave thing for the government would be to change tack and opt to remain in a loose customs union that would give the UK access to the single market. It has already accepted many of the things that would make that possible. The biggest is accepting EU rules in any area where not doing so would result in a hard border in Ireland. That includes agriculture. Much as the government might like to pretend it had its fingers crossed behind its back and so did not mean the things it agreed with Brussels this is not the case. If the UK now tries to renege, any deal it reaches would be vetoed by key EU member states and MEPs.