Analysis: Here we go

What will the new prime minister’s priorities mean for the UK agri-food sector? And do farmers have anything to fear from animal welfare champion Theresa Villiers as Defra secretary?

With Boris Johnson installed at number 10, the next few months are certain to be one thing: uncertain. He won the Conservative leadership election on a ticket touting optimism, energy, and leaving the EU ‘do or die’ by 31 October.

Since he took up residence in Downing Street on 25 July, and appointed a Cabinet comprised almost exclusively of Leave supporting ministers, his message has been one of can-do optimism. It’s a stance pilloried as “arm-waving bluster” by the leader of the opposition.

Theresa Villiers is the new Defra secretary, with Michael Gove moving over to the Cabinet Office to oversee no-deal planning.  

Gove, who by and large has been a hit, will be a hard act to follow, having earned the respect of many who acknowledge that he managed to carve out an agenda for the department quite separate from Brexit. Others will be frustrated at the churn in the department, with yet another secretary of state after just two years. Aside from overseeing the new Agriculture Bill, Defra has during the past two years under Gove also published the 25-year Environmental Plan and the Clean Air Strategy, as well as other more tokenistic measures like banning plastic straws and cotton buds by 2020.

Villiers joins the department at a crucial time. All UK agri-food trade bodies warn the sector is particularly vulnerable to leaving the EU without a deal, due to the hefty tariffs that will come into force on day one. The NFU and Food & Drink Federation, both of which – particularly the FDF – have come close to total exasperation in their official statements as the months have dragged on, will have their work cut out over the summer pressing their case to Villiers.

So, what do we know about Villiers and what she might bring to bear at Defra? Writing on her Facebook page after news of her appointment, Villiers said her new remit chimed with causes she was interested in – namely animal welfare, and air quality. “I have championed a number of the issues covered by the department, including animal welfare and improving air quality. My new responsibilities will therefore complement many of my local campaigns in my constituency.”

Villiers, a former MEP and MP for Chipping Barnet in London since 2005, was Northern Ireland Secretary between 2012 and 2016. She campaigned strongly for Brexit in 2016.

In an interview in March 2016, three months before the referendum, Villiers was asked to respond to claims by UFU deputy president Ivor Ferguson that if the UK left the EU it could see a 30% hike in food prices. She told the Northern Ireland-based website News Letter: “I don’t believe the scare stories about rocketing food prices.”

Villiers has previously campaigned on animal welfare issues, including supporting CIWF’s campaign to ‘end the cage’ and ending live exports. She is also a supporter of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation.

This may sound alarm bells for some. Any further pressure to raise minimum standards, say on stocking densities in broiler production, would impede the UK’s ability to compete with cheap foreign imports at exactly the time when government will be looking to negotiate trade deals with countries including the US.

Other appointments to Defra include Zac Goldsmith, the environmentalist, as a parliamentary under-secretary working. He said one of his priorities would be to “raise animal welfare at home”.

In an article published on the Conservative Home website in January 2017, Theresa Villiers wrote fears about encouraging cheap imports by raising welfare standards at home are unfounded – so long as equal standards are demanded from any potential trading partners. Leaving EU will allow the UK to “reaffirm and strengthen standards for animal welfare,” she writes, and it would be crucial to insist on higher standards for any imported products as part of trade deals.

“It will also be important to ensure that animal welfare is a significant consideration in future trade talks,” her article says. “We should not be afraid to ask those countries who wish to sell into our market to commit to acceptable standards of animal welfare. This should be reconcilable with WTO obligations, so long as a consistent approach is taken to different countries.”

Securing these standards from third party countries may prove to be the fight of her life, especially considering the free market champions that make up the rest of Johnson’s new Cabinet. And insisting on higher welfare standards domestically will probably put her at odds with groups such as the NFU, which is battling to protect a sector that feels like it is already under siege from the risk of big tariffs following a no-deal.

NFU President Minette Batters has written to Villiers, inviting her on farm and urging her to commit to a high-level commission to avoid British food production standards being undermined in the pursuit of post-Brexit trade deals.

In the letter sent to the new Secretary of State, the NFU has highlighted five immediate policy priorities for Defra:

  • A comprehensive impact assessment of the potential impacts of Brexit on the farming sector
  • A fully developed and reinvigorated policy on improving productivity in agriculture
  • A Trade and Standards Commission to be established to ensure our high standards of production are not undermined by our future trade policy
  • A food-focused agricultural policy that rewards farmers fairly for the delivery of public goods
  • Measures to strengthen farmers’ position in the supply chain including a market review

But what of Johnson himself? If he is to secure Brexit, he will have to overcome all the hurdles where Theresa May fell, but with the same parliamentary arithmetic that put paid to her Withdrawal agreement three times.

The EU has said – yet again – it will not reopen negotiations, putting Johnson on course for a policy of leaving without a deal. But parliament will almost certainly try and stop him, including with the support some of his own MPs.

It’s a generally accepted caricature that Johnson has a rapier-like intelligence hidden beneath a carefully constructed veneer of bumbling idiot.

The broadcaster Jeremy Vine wrote a fascinating post on his Facebook page detailing an encounter he had with Johnson back in 2006 before he became mayor of London. Vine was booked as the presenter at a bankers’ awards do, the International Securitisation Awards, and Johnson was booked as the after-dinner speaker.

About four minutes before he was due to speak, Johnson rushed in, breathless and scruffy and bounded up to the table where Vine was having palpitations about his late arrival.

“Where exactly am I?” Johnson asked a startled Vine. After explaining it was a banking awards do, Johnson blustered a bit more, then said, “And who is speaking?”

“You are Boris!” said Vine, completely perplexed about the car crash that was about to unfold in front of several hundred bow tie wearing guests.

“Good God,” said Johnson, and grabbing a menu and a biro, proceeded to jot down a few ideas. Within three minutes of him running into the room, the announcer spoke into the microphone, “Please welcome on to the stage, your after dinner speaker, Boris Johnson MP!”

Vine said he felt a cold sense of dread, as the applause started and Johnson walked up on stage. He glanced over to the menu Johnson had left on the table: on it were the words SHEEP and SHARK scrawled in capital letters.

Johnson was so ill-prepared he couldn’t even remember the name of the event and had to glance over his shoulder to read out loud the words projected on the wall behind him. But to Vine’s surprise, this got a huge laugh. Johnson then proceeded to leave everyone in the room helpless and roaring as he recounted tales of his sheep farmer uncle struggling under the weight of bureaucracy, before pivoting into a story about shark attacks and his admiration for the major in Jaws.

A few months later, Vine was booked at another corporate do with Johnson, and the exact same sequence of events unfolded, down to the scrawled SHEEP and SHARK on the menu and ‘forgetting’ the name of the event, leading Vine to ask himself ‘Is this guy for real?’

Johnson’s bluster will now truly be tested. If the EU doesn’t fold, and his no deal plan doesn’t come to pass perhaps because parliament blocks it, the UK may be facing a general election by the end of the year.

But until then Johnson will have the opportunity to put his money where his mouth is. Do or die.

The new look Defra team

George Eustice has returned to Defra after quitting his Ministerial role at the Department earlier this year in protest at the Government’s Brexit policy.

Eustice replaces Robert Goodwill after his brief spell in the post. In fact, the team that will serve under new Defra Secretary Theresa Villiers has a familiar look – Thérèse  Coffey, who is promoted to Minister of State, Lord Gardiner and David Rutley all continue at the Department. Zac Goldsmith has joined as parliamentary under secretary.

The department is led by the permanent secretary Tamara Finkelstein, who was appointed earlier this summer.


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