Defra minister George Eustice has resigned from government following Theresa May’s decision to allow a vote that could delay Brexit.
His departure – just weeks before the UK is due to leave the European Union – has prompted calls for a replacement as soon as possible.
In a letter on Thursday (28 February), Mr Eustice said he decided to resign following the decision to “allow the postponement of our exit from the EU”.
He added: “Since parliament is now in direct control of events, I want to be free to participate in the ‘critical debate’ that will take place in the weeks ahead.”
Mr Eustice, who has served as a minister since October 2013, said it had been an honour to work alongside so many talented individuals at Defra over the past five years.
He said he had particularly welcomed the chance to craft two new Bills on farming and fisheries – the first for half a century – as the UK prepared to leave the EU.
Mr Eustice said he would vote for Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement when it returns to the House, saying he had stuck with the prime minister during some “rather undignified retreats”.
“Although I campaigned to leave, I have always supported compromise to achieve a reconciliation in our country,” he said.
But Mr Eustice also suggested that a no-deal Brexit might be necessary – saying Mrs May had been “terribly undermined” by MPs “who refuse to respect the referendum result”.
He added: “If the position of parliament is now that we will refuse to leave without an agreement then we are somewhat stuck.
“This is uncomfortable for everyone, but we cannot negotiate a successful Brexit unless we are prepared to walk through the door.”
Farm leaders said Mr Eustice’s departure was a big loss at an important time for the sector.
An NFU spokesman said: “With agriculture one of the most affected sectors by Brexit and the Agriculture Bill currently going through parliament, it is imperative the Defra ministerial team is returned to full strength as soon as possible.
“The NFU will be seeking a meeting with the new farming minister once they are appointed as a matter of priority.”
Country Land and Business Association president Tim Breitmeyer said: “He has held the position since 2015, and has maintained a strong voice on behalf of the farming industry during that time.
“His farming background and first hand knowledge and experience have been invaluable in the many areas of his brief.
“The farming community has lost a key ally at this critical time for the industry, which faces significant uncertainty and change.”
Farmers Union of Wales president Glyn Roberts said: “Here was a minister who understood farming, not just on paper but true, real-life farming.
“His resignation is a serious loss to all involved in agriculture at such a critical time.”
Soil Association head of food policy Rob Percival said Mr Eustice had helped re-frame agricultural policy, angling it towards a broader vision.
“He brought soil firmly onto the policy agenda, giving priority to environmental and animal welfare outcomes alongside food production.”
Coming weeks before the UK is due to leave the EU, the resignation was undoubtedly of concern for farmers, added Mr Percival.
“The government must now move quickly to appoint a new minister who can act as an effective advocate for the sector throughout the Brexit process.”