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Opinion: Boris Johnson leaves behind a sour legacy for farming

'The sad reality that farmers live with is that they have no friends at Westminster. Each can now ask the question as to whether they had more friends in Brussels before Brexit, than they now have in London'

The phrase, 'now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party' was conceived in the early days of typewriters as a test of speed – but it will take more than a 'few good men' to save a UK government now in a downward tailspin.

Time will tell where this all goes and what initiatives will be rushed out by new ministers. But for agriculture, no shake-up will release it from the urban focus that has driven policy since Boris Johnson forced his way into power.

Johnson has always made much of how Brexit frees the UK from the bonds of Europe and the EU. Being out of the single market maximises that flexibility, but at a big cost in terms of easy market access.

The problems that has brought, in the shape of a steady decline in exports to our biggest markets, while imports have not been affected and the issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol, flow from putting sovereignty ahead of market access. This is why farmers will look with some envy to France, which has gone it alone by banning the use of meat-based terms like sausages and steak for plant-based products. This does not extend to burgers, which is a generic term.

This will not have a big impact on the global march of plant-based alternatives and under EU rules this can only be enforced for products made in France. It is, nonetheless, a sign the French government is still willing to ignore public criticism to make a stand for farmers. It was the EU that secured, via the European Court, a ban on the term 'milk' for plant-based substitutes, but it had found it impossible to extend this to meat.

This is why France has gone it alone and it is not an easy road under EU rules and because of Brexit, no such restrictions exist in the UK. The government here could bring in similar legislation and make it even tougher without any challenge from the EU, the European Court or any of the EU's 27 member states. This would be an example of the Brexit dividend Johnson sold before the referendum and of the freedom he claimed when 'getting Brexit done'. However, the chances of any stand on behalf of agriculture are remote.

The voices in the shire countries that once brought sound rural sense have been extinguished by the new urban guard Johnson led. They are as dead now as the one nation Conservatives who saw politics in terms of what was right for the country and the party rather than themselves and party donors.

A resurgence of this thinking around social conservatism might be the only way to restore confidence in a Conservative government, but so deep are the roots of self-interest planted by Johnson it could take a full generation and a period in opposition for that thinking to emerge.

The sad reality that farmers live with is that they have no friends at Westminster. Each individual can then ask the question as to whether they had more friends in Brussels before Brexit, than they now have in London.

As he sought, before the latest events, to rebuild his image, Johnson talked again of trade deals with Commonwealth countries. For him, India is the big prize and again we had the familiar bluster that this would be the real Brexit dividend.

Farmers know there is nothing in such trade policy for them and minimal protection. Over New Zealand and the trade deal it now has with the EU, we can see how much better farmers were protected by Brussels than farmers here were by London.

There is no escape from the reality that with a population of just 60m, the UK will always have to give more than the EU to buy deals. Trade is all about scale and even for the EU life is becoming more difficult.

It still has a healthy, but not as good as before, positive gap between exports and imports but trade is difficult because of the fallout from Ukraine. The loss of an export market in Russia has been a body blow to EU exports as it was a large market for the countries that border it. This reflects the price being paid by all countries for its principled stand against Russia. The figures confirm that trade deals alone cannot offset the seismic shock to normality the world is now experiencing.

About the Author: Richard Wright is an agricultural journalist


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