Analysis: 6 months of Gove and what’s next

When Michael Gove takes to the stage for a Q&A at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) next month, he will be the first Defra secretary to do so since the event was established eight years ago.

Mr Gove’s attendance will mark a coming of age for the event, often seen as the unruly young upstart to its much older sibling – the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) first held in 1936 – which takes place at the same time down the road.

But it will also mark another step in the Mr Gove’s rehabilitation as a caring politician who views the environment as more important than food production agriculture – at ease with the green campaigners at the ORFC as he is the agri-business consultants at the OFC.

See also: Analysis: What the farming unions want from Brexit

Mr Gove remains an astute career politician too, of course. And he will still address the OFC, speaking at the opening – just like Defra secretary after Defra secretary before him – as the event seeks to set the agri-political agenda for the coming year.

But “Green Gove” is something of a remarkable turnaround in the short six months since he returned to government, his back-stabbing of Boris Johnson in a bungled bid to become Tory leader and his reputation as a radical reformer when education secretary fresh in the mind.

“He is in danger of isolating the very farmers he needs to make his Green Brexit vision a reality.”

How the appointment was received

It’s no exaggeration to say that the green lobby were dismayed by Mr Gove’s Defra appointment – fearing he would do the same for the environment that he did for teaching.

Farm leaders were more hopeful, believing a high-profile politician would also raise the profile of their industry.

Speaking to Sky News after taking up his new role, Mr Gove said he wanted to ensure “all those who make our countryside beautiful and who keep it productive are at the very heart of policymaking” as the UK prepared to leave the European Union.

It was promising start – and seemed like Mr Gove was trying to build bridges. But it also seemed he was trying to be all things to all men.

Hedging his bets – as canny politicians do – and tailoring what he said to what his audience wanted to hear.

At an NFU reception at the House of Commons later the same month, Mr Gove pledged to listen to farmers. But there was already a hint that the industry wouldn’t have everything its own way. “One thing will be critical,” he said. “And that will be open and frank dialogue.”

For anyone still in any doubt, the clincher came on 21 July. In a speech to conservationists at the World Wide Fund for Nature’s Living Planet Centre in Surrey, Mr Gove pledged to deliver a “Green Brexit” with the environment at its forefront.

Environment first

He told listeners: “I am an environmentalist first because I care about the fate of fellow animals, and I draw inspiration from nature and I believe that we need beauty in our lives as much as we need food and shelter.”

Just how Mr Gove will deliver his Green Brexit remains to be seen. But the direction of travel is clear: the environment is foremost in his mind and everything else – including food production agriculture – comes later, or at best alongside it.

In return for public support, farmers will have to provide public benefits beyond food. Growers and livestock producers will have to undertake additional environmental measures.

The days of direct payments – seen by critics as money for nothing – are numbered.

Future government support won’t be limited to environmental payments – but there will be no limit on the environmental payments farmers will be able to earn, Mr Gove told a fringe meeting at the Tory party conference in October.

Farmers should also be better trained, he said. In what some might see as a nod to his days as education secretary, Mr Gove plans a review to ensure the land-based education system is “fit for purpose”. And he wants more investment in data and technology.

Animal welfare

As well as improving productivity, technology will also be used to improve animal welfare.

One of Mr Gove’s early announcements was a plan to introduce CCTV in abattoirs to “demonstrate to consumers around the wold that our food is produced to the very highest standards”.

Meanwhile, a draft animal welfare bill will increase the maximum prison sentence for animal cruelty tenfold – from six months to five years. It’s part of a plan to make Brexit work “not just for citizens” but for animals too.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at such an unexpected approach. Adopted at the age of four months by an Aberdeen fish processor, Mr Gove has never really been part of the political establishment.

But he has always been supremely confident making his own way in the world.

Yet for all his ideas – and his degree in English – Mr Gove’s language when it comes to agriculture can remain clumsy.

Rather than taking farmers with him, he is in danger of isolating the very food producers he needs to make his Green Brexit vision a fully fledged reality.

Again this happens when Mr Gove indulges his audience. Speaking at the parliamentary launch of a new environmental group to promote sustainable soils, he infuriated farm leaders by suggesting that intensive agriculture means fields are losing fertility.

Soil fertility

He said: “If you have heavy machines churning the soil and impacting it, if you drench it in chemicals that improve yields but in the long-term undercut the future fertility of that soil, you can increase yields year on year but ultimately you really are cutting the ground away from beneath your own feet.”

Churn and drench. Perhaps the choice of words was a deliberate ploy. Maybe Mr Gove believes being deliberately provocative guarantees getting his message across.

As a former journalist, he knows how to write headlines as well as make them.

He’s not afraid of upsetting people either. Asked on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show whether wealthy farmers such as Sir James Dyson, would receive less money under a new UK support regime than they do now, Mr Gove simply replied “Yes”.

Reinforcing his view that support should move away from an area-based payment system, Mr Gove told the Sunday Times: “We can better support investment in environmental goods rather than simply rewarding people for the number of hectares they have.”

But while his views on the environment have clarity, his thinking on agriculture is more hazy.

He is yet to fully explain how he will make good his promise of cheaper food for consumers while simultaneously raising animal welfare standards and reducing red tape for farmers.

There is a sense, too, that policy is sometimes devised on the hoof. Speaking at the Royal Welsh Show, Mr Gove pledged that the government would secure a comprehensive free-trade deal between the UK and EU at the end of the Brexit process.

A throwaway remark, perhaps. But it wasn’t his promise to make. And Mr Gove’s pledge that the interests of British farmers and high food standards won’t be sacrificed in favour of imported chlorine-washed chicken as the UK seeks a trade deal with the USA could also come unstuck.

See more