In this space 12 months ago I appealed to Defra secretary Michael Gove not to leave UK agriculture as a broken rung on the ladder as he climbed back to the top of the political pile.
Today, as Mr Gove bears down on that rung with his full weight, poised to spring to a loftier step, I fear it is holding together by a mere splinter.
The Brexit-induced crisis of the past year has seen unparalleled political chaos at Westminster. Defra seems to be the only department not utterly paralysed by the maelstrom.
Indeed, it would seem a new, post-CAP land-use and environment policy is a priority for a government desperate to have something, anything, positive to show for its core mantra of “taking back control”.
Thus, our industry is soon to be encumbered with legislation rushed through parliament to an arbitrary political deadline and potentially based on metrics such as “soil health” which are insufficiently understood – all while the future trading relationship with our largest overseas customer is an unknown quantity.
Farmer vote taken for granted
In the past 12 months I’ve been informed by more than one Conservative MP that farmers’ votes are so few we are of little consequence, and regardless, we’ll always vote “blue”. Another MP said that efficient, driverless tractors would make up any shortfall of income resulting from a hard Brexit in spring 2019.
We’re all aware of the current paucity of provision for food production in the Agriculture Bill (and its implications for national security), while the lack of assurance on equivalence of standards for imported goods has been stark – as confirmed by Mr Gove’s admission at party conference that he wouldn’t seek to block neonic-treated cereals from entering the UK.
Despite previous reassurance, vital EU-sourced labour looks set to be critically short in future, and many Conservative MPs see cheaper, imported food as a key benefit of Brexit.
Will farmers always vote ‘blue’?
So, will farmers always vote “blue”? The past year has seen a surprising level of support for farm business coming from both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. During the debate on the Agriculture Bill in parliament, Mr Gove’s Labour shadow Sue Hayman was highly critical that “food security has drifted off this government’s agenda” and that Labour will “fight the lowering of food standards as part of any trade deal”.
The Liberal Democrat’s Tim Farron said that he “fully supports the NFU’s call for the government to include the support of domestic agriculture, to ensure food security and the stability of food supply”. “I can think of no greater public good,” he said.
Meanwhile, Labour’s David Drew called food production and security “the most fundamental aspect of farming”.
We might be naive to believe that, in power, these supportive words would necessarily be translated into policy. Yet, were there to be a general election next month, they should weigh heavily on the minds of everyone involved in the wider UK food supply chain.
In parliament, the government ultimately blocked reasonable and commendable amendments to their bill, and pushed on regardless. Arrogance is rarely rewarded at the ballot box – or by posterity.
The rung of agriculture on which Mr Gove – and his whole party – is currently poised may be close to breaking, but it’s the health and safety of the country that is at imminent risk should it finally snap.
Joe Stanley is an arable and beef farmer on a third-generation Leicestershire family farm