Farmers face further uncertainty after Theresa May’s resignation and the renewed prospect of a no-deal Brexit, industry leaders have warned.
The prime minister will stand down on 7 June after repeatedly failing to win parliamentary support for her EU withdrawal agreement. A Conservative party leadership contest will start the following week, with the intention that a new prime minister is in place by July.
A no-deal Brexit remains the default option for the UK to leave the EU on 31 October unless the withdrawal agreement is passed. Such a prospect has heightened further after the Brexit Party’s success in the European parliamentary elections.
Farmers remain divided over a no-deal scenario. Those in favour say a clean break from the EU would benefit farmers. But farm leaders warn that it could see the reintroduction of EU border checks, badly affecting transport links with the UK’s biggest trading partner.
NFU president Minette Batters said no-deal would be catastrophic for UK agriculture. “It is essential that a future prime minister ensures that the Article 50 extension is used constructively and a solution is found which enables the UK to leave the EU in an orderly way.”
Any “Brexit solution” must include achieving as free and frictionless trade as possible, Ms Batters said. This meant ensuring the UK’s international trade pursuits did not undermine British farmers’ high production standards and avoiding a no-deal scenario.
“It is frustrating that the Agriculture Bill’s progress remains at a stalemate in Parliament and it is unlikely to make any progress during a leadership contest,” Ms Batters said. “These delays simply further compound the uncertainty facing farmers.”
Country Land and Business Association president Tim Breitmeyer said farmers and other rural businesses would be concerned that progress towards reaching a workable agreement with the EU had stalled.
Trade with the EU needed to be as free and frictionless as possible – including continued access to labour, Mr Breitmeyer said. “Allowing the next five months to drift towards a ‘no deal’ Brexit, with its immediate barriers to trade, is a scenario we need to avoid.”
Tenant Farmers Association chief executive George Dunn said politicians would need skill and diplomacy to take full advantage of the long-term opportunities from leaving the EU while safeguarding the UK from some of the challenges it faced.
“This cannot be achieved through a cliff edge no-deal Brexit,” Mr Dunn said. It was essential that the new prime minister secured a “sensible transitional arrangement with the EU that will allow us to have a soft landing on our exit”.
Chief report Johann Tasker comments
Theresa May’s resignation paves the way for further upheaval for UK agriculture – including the prospect of a new Defra secretary.
Current Defra secretary Michael Gove is among the front runners to move into 10 Downing Street.
But even if he is unsuccessful, we can still expect a new face at Defra when the next prime minister announces his or her cabinet.
If that happens, the new incumbent would be the fourth Defra secretary in the three years since the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016 – a situation which doesn’t bode well for continuity in one of the departments most affected by Brexit.
Whether or not we agree with his policies, Mr Gove has given Defra a sense of purpose amid the Brexit turmoil.
As a heavy hitting politician, he has also ensured that UK agriculture punches above its weight when other government departments have threatened its interests.
Even so, for every pledge that British food standards will not be lowered in pursuit of post-Brexit trade deals, it is evident that Mr Gove finds headline-grabbing environmental policies easier than setting out a coherent direction for farmers.
Plastic straw ban anyone? Yes, the environment is important. But a clear agricultural policy should be a priority too.
Without clarity, growers and livestock producers cannot plan their businesses – something every Defra secretary, including this one and the next, should recognise as essential.