It’s becoming clear that there’s no plan for Brexit. This adds weight to claims that the Leave advocates were surprised to win, and had never really thought out how to implement a Brexit plan. It now seems the suggestion that Brexit could mean an extra £350 million for the NHS was a campaign promise to be forgotten. The prime minister, Theresa May, was shrewd in putting three Brexit enthusiasts – Derek Davis, Boris Johnston and Liam Fox – into key positions on the negotiations. They’re now spending more time squabbling with each other than driving policy, adding to the sense that they never had a Brexit vision.
As to agriculture, it’s now obvious that agreeing support measures beyond 2020 will be a long and difficult haul. Both Leave and Remain enthusiasts are asking whether things really can be different, and whether there’s a commitment at Westminster to invest in and drive a radical new agricultural policy for the UK.
Repealing EU legislation and replacing it with new rules will be a long process. Officials have suggested that in the first place EU legislation will be ‘cut and pasted’ into UK law, with references to the EU excluded. Regarding the CAP, people voted to leave the EU to escape red tape; if red tape remains, the referendum will have been pointless. Farmers could find themselves with the same regulations, but without the certainty of EU funding and without the influence secured from being part of the powerful European farming lobby.
This raises the issue of ‘gold plating’. For years farmers asked whether all EU member states faced the same onerous regulations that exist here. There’s always been a sense that the answer is no, and a feeling that UK officials not only gold plate EU policies, but pursue them with a zeal absent in other member states. That raises a big question about what will happen in the future. Officials here blamed the EU for the excesses of red tape, but in many cases the blame lay a lot closer to home. For that to change after Brexit there has to be a change of mindset in the public sector – not only for agriculture, but in other policy areas such as the environment and health and safety.
Politicians who backed Brexit, and who are now in power, need to make clear that things must change; policy in all areas has to be implemented with a lighter touch. In the absence of any commitment along these lines, or anything at all about the future of farm support after 2020, farmers must lead from the front. We’ve already seen the National Trust calling for all support to be directed towards the environment; the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which carries influence at Westminster, has been pressing for support to be directed to smaller farmers. As these and other groups seek to seize the initiative, farmers need to set out their case. That should be for a technically-driven, globally-competitive UK farming industry delivering a safe and assured food supply and the countryside people want. The support package could then be developed to fit those goals.
It seems ironic that politicians are reluctant to engage in this debate – not least those in the Conservative party who promised farmers so much when campaigning for their votes before the referendum. If polls were accurate, farmers responded to those promises, but to date delivery or even engagement has been far short of the picture they painted as they toured farmers’ meeting in May and June.