Mark Spencer would not have expected the friendliest of receptions when walking out to bat for the Government at the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) conference yesterday. Farmers have more than the weather to blame on ministers. Brexit, rejigged subsidies, spiralling energy costs, lop-sided trade deals: for a profession reliant upon stability, the last decade has offered anything but.
So the hearty reception given to Keir Starmer, a fellow speaker, was hardly surprising. Then again, Spencer is a farmer himself, and represents a rural constituency. The closest Starmer gets to the countryside is via the Camden branch of Whole Foods. But a recent Farmer’s Weekly poll suggests the percentage of farmers planning to vote Tory has fallen to 42 per cent from 71 per cent in 2020, so Starmer was pushing at something of an open door.
He proceeded to wedge it open with a healthy portion of red meat for Jeremy Clarkson and co. He promised to stick close to EU standards, to have 50 per cent of food purchased by the public sector produced locally, and to crack down on rural crime. All it needed to seal the NFU’s approval was a Red Tractor logo.
He also mentioned a politician who has had a variable relationship with farmers, to say the least: Liz Truss. Starmer linked his efforts to get the public sector to consume more British produce to her notorious complaints about our over-reliance on foreign cheese and apples. He stopped short of pledging to open any new pork markets.
But in pursuing a cheap gag, I fear Starmer picked the wrong former Environment Secretary. It was George Eustice who floated a strategy that could see half the public sector consuming local produce. His reasoning was the same as Starmer’s. Boosting the UK’s food security has become more important than ever following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That it would also mean stuffing the NFU’s mouths with gold is a happy coincidence.
These last few years we have heard much about Cabinet rows between ‘Lidl free-marketeers’ and ‘Waitrose protectionists’: broadly, those, like Truss, who want to see post-Brexit Britain go all guns blazing for free trade, and those, like Eustice, who are more concerned with shielding our agriculture.
The origin of this was the striking of post-Brexit free trade deals. In and out of office, Eustice has criticised our first major deal with Australia. He believes it “gave away too much for far too little in return” and warned against another deal where the UK agri-food market access offered was “nearly double” what we received in return.
Truss – since she negotiated the thing – would disagree. Although the agreement is hardly the abolition of the Corn Laws – the Government’s own figures predict an increase of GDP of just 0.08 per cent by 2035 – the speed of its signing confounded pessimists, and encouraged future agreements with India, the US, and more.
The problem for the ex-PM is that she was a victim of her own success. Truss’s deal not only put a rocket booster under Britain’s trade policy but her own career. Her policy of moving fast and breaking things which she brought to International Trade was, alas, the same one she briefly brought to Downing Street. The rest is history.
By contrast, Rishi Sunak seems more sympathetic to the ‘Waitrose view’. Behind that technocratic exterior lies an honorary Yorkshireman. His constituency has more farmers than any other. Last summer, he mirrored Eustice in calling the Australia deal rushed and “one-sided”. More obviously, he has just abolished the Department for International Trade.
Has Waitrose triumphed against Lidl? Not really. It would be an easy narrative for those who want to suggest Sunak’s premiership is a rear-guard action by the toffs – or to portray the battle between Eustice and Truss, DEFRA and DIT, and Adam Smith and Jeremy Clarkson as the latest stage in a saga involving the Corn Laws, Joseph Chamberlain, and Enoch Powell.
Instead, there is a surprisingly large deal of continuity between Sunak and the approach Truss took at International Trade. The major difference lies in speed and presentation. The achievement of the UK-Australia deal by mid-2021 was designed to give ‘Global Britain’ a clear boost ahead of that year’s Cornwall G7 summit. The deal’s terms were of less importance than the signal it sent.
That is why one can both defend the deal and agree with Eustice that it isn’t “actually very good”. Trading significant Australian access for Australian beef – albeit at a remove of 15 years, a part of the deal negotiated by DEFRA – was the price to pay for hitting that deadline. Hence why some might complain that that momentum has been wasted, sacrificed to appease the NFU.
But Sunak and Kemi Badenoch – the new Secretary for Business and Trade – would reply that they are not abandoning the trade agenda, just proceeding with more caution. They have scrapped an arbitrary target of Diwali for signing an agreement with India. That does not mean they have lost interest in the subcontinent or the Holy Grail of a Pacific-wide deal.
Sunak is a realist. The next election is in under two years. He has enough to get through Parliament without adding trade deals (especially if they mean loosening immigration rules). It is also true that what Truss achieved involved gathering the low-hanging fruit, in trade terms. Rolling over agreements we had whilst in the EU is quicker than hashing out new deals with half the world.
Moreover, as Ben Ramanauskas (a former Truss adviser) has pointed out, modern trade agreements are highly technical, as much do with regulations as they are tariffs. Badenoch is right to focus on the boring stuff – upping inward investment, or encouraging businesses to export more – rather than the next photo-op.
We should welcome a rather more unsexy approach to the whole trade debate. The Lidl vs Waitrose dichotomy strikes me as bumpf from Truss’s then team – an ‘Anti-Growth Coalition’ forerunner which got fellow ministers’ (and a few thousand farmers’) backs up but obscured the debate’s nuances.
Forces of inertia do exist: the NFU has a hold over our politics wholly disproportionate to farming’s contribution to our economy (*cough* fishing *cough*). Some within the civil service were certainly unenthusiastic about diverging from Brussels. But the political tension was over timing and presentation, not the fundamentals.
For all that some Eurosceptics may like waxing lyrically about ‘Global Britain’, trade deals were never a priority for Leave voters. Lord Ashcroft’s referendum poll suggested sovereignty mattered much more important than trade. Vote Leave highlighted that leaving the EU meant we could sign our own trade deals but did not make it the core of their campaign.
So Sunak’s approach – cautious, technical, and focused on concrete gains – has much to recommend it. But Truss was also right to push back against DEFRA’s timidity. We are never going to do a New Zealand and abolish our tariffs and subsidies in one go. Sunak might match Robert Peel for brains, but splitting his party didn’t make it into his five priorities.
But that does not mean farmers don’t need a kick up the arse. The scope for innovation outside the dastardly Common Agricultural Policy is vast. The new Environmental Land Management scheme is a great opportunity to make our farming sector both more productive and environmentally friendly. Beijing’s pork markets won’t know what’s hit them.
This makes it all the more disappointing that Labour’s approach involves hugging close to Brussels’ standards and re-introducing the CAP in all but name. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.