FW Opinion: Eustice appointment is a ‘double-edged sword’

Government reshuffles are often a heady mix of the predictable and the unexpected – and last week’s ministerial merry-go-round was no exception.

The sacking of Defra secretary Theresa Villiers came as little surprise. Ineffectual and uninspiring during her six-month tenure, she will quickly be forgotten, save for her refusal to make the opening speech at this year’s Oxford Farming Conference.

See also: Dismay at government plans to tighten immigration rules

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Johann Tasker
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In a statement after losing her job, Mrs Villiers claimed she tackled her role at Defra with passion, commitment and huge amounts of hard work. But it didn’t last long. “What the prime minister giveth, the prime minister taketh away,” she said.

The appointment of her successor was more of an eye-opener. George Eustice is the first Defra secretary with direct farming experience. He is also the first Defra secretary to be appointed from within the department.

Reassuringly, Mr Eustice already owns a pair of wellies and knows his way around a farm

Mr Eustice has served as a Defra minister since 2013 – apart from a five-month break when he resigned from Theresa May’s government over her decision to delay Brexit.

He was reappointed to Defra last summer, after fellow Brexiteer Boris Johnson became prime minister.

Reassuringly, Mr Eustice already owns a pair of wellies and knows his way around a farm.

And now he has the top job at Defra, he has ultimate responsibility for implementing the post-Brexit agricultural policies he largely helped devise.

Usually there is a lag after a new Defra secretary is appointed as the new incumbent gets to grips with what is a wide-ranging brief. Not so with Mr Eustice, who is already up to speed and can hit the ground running.

But reshuffles are a double-edged sword. A new secretary of state can reinvigorate a department – as Michael Gove did when he was appointed to Defra in 2017.

Or not. Until then, for years the department had been seen a dumping ground for mediocre ministers.

In George Eustice, at least we have a secretary of state who actually wants the job.

For farm leaders and other organisations, it means building on a relationship that stretches back seven years, rather than getting to know someone new – again.

Continuity is no bad thing in a department that has seen seven Defra secretaries over the past decade.

So what can we expect?

Mr Eustice is a key architect of the government’s Agriculture Bill – so there will be no tearing up of his predecessor’s policies.

Instead, it will be full steam ahead pushing the Bill through parliament, including plans to replace direct payments with support based on environmental measures.

That much is clear. But there are at least two downsides to his appointment.

The Defra secretary brief includes much more than agriculture, and the danger is that Mr Eustice will no longer be able to give the industry the attention it deserves.

Immediately after his appointment, Farmers Weekly requested a short interview.

But Mr Eustice was unable to find the time because he was busy dealing with the effects of flooding in the aftermath of Storms Ciara and Dennis.

Questions have also been raised over whether he is the big hitter farming needs. Brexit presents big opportunities for UK agriculture.

But it also poses threats – including that British farmers could be undermined by food imports produced using methods that are illegal in the UK.

Whether Mr Eustice can hold his own against other Cabinet heavyweights remains to be seen. But it is vital he does so to secure a future for the farming sector.

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