21 August 1998


How can the new farm

minister Nick Brown

make farmers

feel loved again?

Geoffrey Hollis has a

few tips

SO farewell to the Enforcer, welcome to the Political Fixer, as the Financial Times described new farm minister Nick Brown. Personally I was rather pleased about Dr Cunninghams promotion, chiefly because I had forecast it in this column as long ago as May. But will his replacement be up to the job?

Letters to FW have suggested that Mr Brown, being a very urban person, is unqualified to be farm minister. However, he has several plus points. First, anyone who can keep the parliamentary Labour Party under control should be good at wheeling and dealing in the Brussels corridors.

Second, he is a close associate of Chancellor Gordon Brown, which has to be good news for agriculture. In any case, it is probably not too important who occupies this post since all the crucial decisions affecting farmers incomes are now taken elsewhere.

CAP spending is decided by majority voting in Brussels. No one country is strong enough to have its way, as was demonstrated by the defeat of France over the amount of set-aside next season. That though, is good news for UK farmers since our government would soon cut farm subsidies if it had the option.

As for the support schemes for farmers, where the government has discretion the amount spent on them is being squeezed.

The latest public expenditure plans for the next three years showed that spending on social security is out of control and that has forced a cut in the agriculture provision. The first victim of this squeeze has been the calf processing scheme.

Runaway spending on welfare hits farmers in another way because it causes interest rates to be higher than they otherwise would be.

That pushes up the value of the £ and depresses farm prices and subsidies.

So instead of worrying too much about the ability of Nick Brown, farmers should be hoping that the new secretary of state for social security, Alistair Darling, succeeds in curbing expenditure on benefits where Harriet Harman failed.

There is something though that Nick Brown could do to cheer up farmers. He could make them feel loved again. Dr Cunningham may have liked farmers but if so he kept it well hidden.

That provides an opportunity for Mr Brown, since he only has to make a few warm gestures to create a good impression.

For example, as soon as he gets back from his foreign jaunt, he should try to be photographed on as many farms as he can. Dr Cunningham set a record in rarely setting foot on a real farm so Mr Brown would make a big impact by this trivial device.

He could also follow the method Frank Dobson uses to placate doctors and nurses. He could tell farmers that he would love to spend more money on them, if only he werent stopped by the wretched Treasury.

He might also consider an equally simple and inexpensive ploy to win friends in his new areas of responsibility. Gillian Shephard, during her brief time as farm minister, broke with all precedent by greeting visitors in the waiting room, rather than having them ushered into her presence as was the normal procedure.

That worked like a charm. Although she never gave any real concessions away, her visitors left the ministry feeling they had had a good hearing from a considerate person. Worth a try, Nick, I think.

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