As well as being leader of the Liberal Democrats and a former cabinet minister, Sir Vince Cable is well versed in the fundamentals of farming; his wife Rachel Smith raised suckler beef on a New Forest smallholding.
It gives him an insight into agricultural policy and the challenges that lie ahead with Brexit looming, which he believes will be a disaster for the farming sector.
“The Chequers accord may cause less damage than ‘no deal’ at all, but it has serious problems,” he says. “Nobody has explained how the proposed two-tier tariff system is actually going to work, it is far from clear that it can solve the problem of the Irish frontier, and it will not prove acceptable to Brussels.”
For agriculture, Sir Vince sees three big issues – trade, labour supply and future support.
“If we get a ‘no deal’, the trade implications for agriculture will be pretty horrific,” he says. “In industrial goods, there aren’t too many tariffs. But for agriculture, they are massive and if there is no deal, those come into effect.
“About two-thirds, or £12bn, of UK food exports go to the European Union and that would stop – it’s as brutal as that.
“I can understand the logic of not wanting to stay in the single market because of the freedom of movement issue, but the decision to leave the customs union is utterly perverse,” he adds.
“Leaving it creates enormous problems, not just for the Irish frontier, but for the whole supply chain. It’s completely unnecessary and it cuts us off from the existing framework of trade agreements that the EU already has with large numbers of other countries.”
On seasonal labour, Sir Vince remains sceptical – despite the recent announcement of a new pilot scheme by Home Secretary Sajid Javid.
“The Home Office is very bureaucratic and tends to treat all foreigners as a problem,” he says. “The idea that they will devise some sympathetic, business-sensitive model requires an enormous leap of faith.
“And it’s not just agriculture. Large parts of the country with upland farming also depend very heavily on tourism, and the hospitality industry is just as vulnerable as farming to labour shortages.”
Sir Vince also questions the government’s long-term commitment to supporting agriculture with taxpayers’ money.
“At £3bn, direct payments represent a substantial amount of overall farm income,” he says. “Although the government has promised to keep this going to 2022, after that it will come under enormous pressure to cut the subsidy level, given all the pressures on other areas of public finance.”
Sir Vince says it is “ironic” that the Common Agricultural Policy has come in for such criticism, given the reforms that have already taken place.
“The direct payment system is no longer based on subsidising production. Many of the things people are asking for in terms of better stewardship are already happening. There is not enough acknowledgement of the extent to which the CAP has already been reformed.”
The replacement domestic agricultural policy is set to focus future support on environmental delivery – something Sir Vince agrees is essential. “But I’m not sure the balance is right. I don’t think the farmers have been at the centre of [Defra secretary] Michael Gove’s thinking.”
Having stressed the importance of productive agriculture, Sir Vince is more cautious when it comes to issues of self-sufficiency.
“I would not put a figure on it to define what self-sufficiency is – we don’t do it for any other sector,” he says. “Yes, there is an argument for producing as much stuff as close to home as possible. But I’m not arguing for a closed border approach.
“There are some areas where liberalisation of trade makes sense, sugar being a case in point. But there is also a strong argument for supporting domestic production, providing it is not done in an extremely costly, protectionist way.”
With all the turmoil surrounding Brexit and fears of a ‘no deal’ scenario, Sir Vince is far from convinced it will actually happen at all and remains a keen supporter of a second referendum on the issue.
“We’re getting to a position where, in two months from now, it’s likely that parliament will not endorse a ‘no deal’, and will not endorse the Chequers compromise either. When we confront this dilemma, the sensible option will be to ask the public: ‘is this what you really wanted or would you rather stay in the European Union?’
“Now they are better equipped to understand what’s on offer, they may have a different view. In places like Switzerland, the idea of a confirmatory referendum is not unusual at all.”
Vince Cable on…
Rural crime “All major police forces need to have a rural task force. Money is not limitless and I was part of a government trying to enforce financial discipline, but the truth is we do need more police officers with specialist capacity for dealing with rural areas.”
The supply chain “One of the things I did when I was secretary of state for business was to set up the Grocery Code Adjudicator. The problem is that it only covers the people who deal direct with the supermarkets. I would like to go back and strengthen the rights for people on the second and third tier of the supply chain who often bear the brunt of aggressive approaches from above.”
Rural housing “The price of housing in relation to people’s earnings in rural areas is just astronomic. The planning system is very restrictive and the second home ownership problem is well known. We need a combination of making it easier to build new housing – especially social housing – and penalties on second home ownership, such as higher council tax surcharges and higher stamp duty on second homes.”
Public access “The right to roam principle is a good one. Obviously it should be done with properly managed routes and respect for livestock, but as far as possible we want the countryside to be open. If you want a strong rural economy, townspeople must feel they have an interest in it.”
Badger culling “It should very much be driven by the scientific evidence. Sentiment should not drive the policy. I was a member of the cabinet that approved the existing policy back in 2013. It is stupid for politicians to get involved with quarrels with their scientific advisers.”
Glyphosate “Again, it’s down to the science. The worst thing is when ministers get a bee in their bonnet; they have read an article that challenges the consensus and they jump on the bandwagon. That’s a very dangerous thing to do.”
His political future “There is much going on. There is the possibility of an early election, there is Brexit, there are discussions about new party formations. I’m going to be leading us through all of that. But equally I’m not Robert Mugabe. I’m not going on forever.”