In these are extraordinary political times, we should ask how British farmers will fare.
To begin at the beginning, why was the election called? Was it to strengthen the hand of the British PM in Brussels? Or was the election to enable the eventual passing of the Brexit buck? Was it to allow the PM to say, ‘tough luck, you voted in the General Election for no deal is better than a bad deal and, de facto, you voted for a no-deal exit from the EU’.
One suspects that behind the scenes the numbers were crunched. There was a suggestion aired that more Tory MPs were needed to counterbalance the hard-Brexit cohort of MPs and that more MPs would allow the PM to deliver a ‘softer’ Brexit. I am cynical enough to suggest the opposite, that the soft-Brexit cohort of MPs was sufficient to stymie a no-deal or very hard Brexit. Hence, the question, was this election about internal party numbers and ensuring a hard or no-deal Brexit? And one that the Conservatives could say was mandated by the election?
Well Thursday revealed that British voters did not buy into the no deal is better than a bad deal position. Although other factors came into play, the ‘progressive’ parties message was that ‘Brexit was Brexit’ but it did not have to mean a hard Brexit. And further, no deal was a bad deal and a bad deal is not an option. Did the electorate just spot that a Tory landslide was an open ticket for soft-Brexit Tory MPs to be trodden underfoot as the hard-Brexit wing of the party stampeded the UK out of the EU. And one should add that UKIP’s ballot-box returns suggest that the electorate has also turned its collective back on a UKIP-driven hard Brexit.
After such shenanigans of politicking and such a debacle of an election, an October election should be called. It may delay Brexit negotiations but so be it. As they keep telling us, Brexit is critical to Britain’s future and the UK needs a coherent negotiating position. It did not have one in the run up to this election. Obviously, the political parties need to work out what they are about and, hence, they need time to present a comprehensive vision of Britain outside the EU.
The sound-bite campaign has been an insult to the intelligence of the electorate. Did we have such because the Tory party already new that its own internal balance was taking the UK towards an extreme, no-deal Brexit? Was ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ just an attempt to offer a palatable slogan behind which to hide the reality? Was the slogan to eventually be followed by ‘well we told you no deal was a possibility and you gave us a mandate to leave the EU with no deal’? Maybe some of the electorate worked this out. And maybe others just got the whiff of a rotting rat under the bonnet of that blue campaign bus.
So where does this leave us now on Sunday morning, the 11th of June? The UK is looking a minority government propped up by Northern Ireland’s DUP. The DUP is pro-Brexit but must deal with Northern Ireland’s unique position. A hard Brexit for a Remain population and a hard border are not options for the DUP. Then we have the Scottish Tories. It is their new 12 MPs who are allowing the Tories to hang on. But Scotland voted to remain and the 12’s presence in Westminster will change the ‘internal’ Tory dynamics. The Scottish Tories are already calling for a wider consensus position over Brexit. That will be a lead balloon for the hard-Brexit Tory cohort.
The June election has not clarified the UK’s position over Brexit, far from it. Was it ever even meant to do so? The UK now needs an election campaign with manifestos that clearly present a post-Brexit vision and how that is going to be delivered. Endlessly repeating ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ did not cut it. Will the election happen, probably not as the Tory party will not want it and neither will the Tory hard-Brexit cohort? After all, it is not their fault that the electorate got it wrong.
In all this it is easy to forget that the CAP is the major operational instrument within the EU and that Brexit will have a massive impact upon the farming sector in the UK. Farming and food will also be heavily impacted by the demise of free movement. Neither have mainstream election issues in such an urban country. There are some hard-Brexit supporters who say that Brexit will create a de-regulated Utopia for British farming; one in which they can just ‘grow more, sell more and export more’ but that ignores the realities of food standards for domestic and international trade and the relatively small scale of British farming. And British farmers will not be able to buy sufficient technology to survive post-Brexit, whatever the technology sales-folk might say.
Brexit will mean Brexit but Brexit will mean a negotiated ‘soft Brexit’. Deals will be reached on trade and even free movement. They will have a strong resemblance to what currently exists but they will be repackaged and relabelled. This will, of course, be hard to palate for the hard-Brexit lobby but so be it. It will be an easier Brexit to reach after an election re-run and the installation of a ‘progressive’ government promoting consensus, but do not hold your breath waiting for that to happen.
So, what will Brexit change? What EU instruments will be ‘sacrificed’ to appease hard-Brexiteers? The answer is farming subsidies and the expensive and overly bureaucratic Common Agricultural Policy. Trade and food standards will be about ‘trade’ but who in an urbanized Britain is really going to fight to maintain Britain’s membership of the CAP? It must be the stand-out sacrificial lamb. Hence, most others will get a soft Brexit whilst British farmers will not!
The above should be no surprise as CAP farming subsidies have not been overwhelmingly popular. A major revamp of farming and food policy will also be an easy sell to a growing ‘progressive’ and predominately-urban political class. And the one thing this election has shown is that it is they who are on the ascendency and politicians will have to take a closer note of their views.
One suspects that there is an alignment between those who want a consensus-based soft-Brexit and those who want a radically changed British food and farming policy. Hence, a new repatriated British policy will be ‘green’ and it will be ‘ethical’. Maybe perversely, there appears to be an acceptance that the farming, food, rural and environmental ‘envelop’ should remain similar in financial magnitude to what has been provided via the CAP. That will, nonetheless, be where the similarities end. A soft-Brexit will return British food and farming policy-making back to the UK, but it will lead to very different conclusions. Probably the only certainty in these uncertain times is that British farming needs to prepare for change, regardless of where UK politics goes over the coming months.