The former Secretary of State for Education remains deeply unpopular with teachers, but could carry the political clout agriculture needs
“You’re all doomed,” said the voice of bitter experience.
I know a lot of people from the teaching sector – in fact I’m married to one – and the overwhelming consensus from them was that Michael Gove’s arrival at Defra spells bad news for farmers.
After all, in four years as Secretary of State for Education he implemented far-reaching reforms that remain deeply unpopular within the profession. He ploughed on regardless in the face of bitter opposition from teachers, whose unions accused him of ‘losing the confidence of the teaching profession’ and of engendering a ‘climate of bullying, fear and intimidation’.
So welcome to the arch-reformer – parachuted into Defra to re-shape post-Brexit agriculture into something leaner, meaner and less reliant on support from Brussels?
There was an air of nervousness at this week’s Cereals event, in Lincolnshire, where his appointment was the number one topic of discussion. “This could be a disaster,” was one view, not uncommon across the site.
But there were other, more positive reactions. “It could be the best the thing to happen for farming,” another suggested.
And the logic is this. Gove is undoubtedly a political heavyweight – his arrival, unprecedented for Defra, was the main headline of Theresa May’s Cabinet reshuffle, a surprisingly swift reconciliation between political enemies, forced, it appears, by her weakened position (or the influence of Rupert Murdoch, according to Labour’s Tom Watson – a claim laughed off by Mr Gove).
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He is an intellectual heavyweight, too, and will seek to formulate his own vision for the future of food and farming, unafraid to be radical and controversial if previous history is anything to go by.
If – and it is a very big ‘if’ – the farming industry can get him onside and help him shape a post-Brexit vision that works for agriculture, then he certainly has the clout to champion the industry across Government in a way his predecessors never could during their uninspiring tenures.
‘Govism’ could be become a thing in farming in way ‘Trussism’ or ‘Leadism’ never did!
In other words, it could go either way. Political ally George Eustice’s return to Defra, bringing continuity and good industry knowledge and relations, will help.
Opening the Cereals 2017 on Wednesday, NFU president Meurig Raymond’s glass was half full following a ‘very positive conversation’ with Mr Gove the previous day.
“I was very heartened by what I heard,” Mr Raymond said. “He is ambitious for the industry. Whether he is going to be a reforming Secretary of State I don’t know, but we have a very prominent member of Government at Defra – he is high profile and highly ambitious. Put all that together and I believe he is going to have to champion food and farming. The impression I had is that he is prepared to do that.”
Mr Gove certainly arrives at Nobel House with baggage – and not just his strained relations with other prominent Cabinet members. Green MP Caroline Lucas claimed he was ‘entirely unfit’ to hold the post of Environment Secretary in light of his record on green issues, including voting against measures to combat climate change and trying to remove it from the geography curriculum. Mr Gove, describing himself as a ‘shy green’, rejected the suggestion, pointing to his support in 2006 for anti-climate change legislation.
He campaigned on a ‘hard Brexit’ EU referendum agenda, tough on immigration and a champion of the UK breaking clear of the EU and forging new free trade deals on the global stage. He was accused by leading farming Remain campaigner Peter Kendall of pursuing a cheap food agenda.
However, Mr Gove, who was quoted during the campaign as promising farmers they would ‘not lose a penny from Brexit’, and others within Government now appear to be more willing seek a softer line on Brexit, including discussion some sort of membership of the Customs Union.
Expressing ‘surprise’ at his appointment, Mr Gove, whose first visit was to an RSPB reserve, promised to ‘make sure those who make our countryside beautiful and who keep it productive are at the heart of policymaking’.
Time will tell, although exactly how much time he has at Defra will probably depend on how Mrs May negotiates the potentially treacherous months ahead.