Gove tries to recycle himself as a green statesman but falls short.
The ways of an aspiring leader
Like many others, Michael Gove has seen that, if the Conservative party is to regain credibility, it needs new leadership. Not surprisingly, it looks as though he is positioning himself to assume that role.
Over and over again, Mrs May has failed her party and the country – by not seizing the opportunity to bridge the leave-remain gap when she became party leader after Gove and Johnson had knocked each other out as contenders; setting out red lines that would make constructive negotiations of Britain’s future relationship with the EU virtually impossible; calling an ill-judged “snap” election that led to a Tory minority being propped up by a £1,000 million allocation of public funds to the maverick DUP; avoiding all serious debate in the cabinet and parliament about future UK-EU relationships; and, just now, muddling through a cabinet reshuffle that leaves her no stronger.
If any credible Tory MP was waiting in the wings, May would already have left 10 Downing Street. The absence of any challenger in her own party and the real threat of Labour, led by Jeremy Corbyn, taking over the government allows her to muddle on in leading Britain down a dead-end road in which even she does not personally believe.
Precedents betray Gove’s leadership ambitions, and, like any other ambitious person, he is unlikely to have set them aside. While waiting to strike when the opportunity arises, he is trying to burnish his image as the statesman the party needs as its leader if it is to revive its credibility and as the one who can marshal more Conservative voters in any future election.
After ingratiating himself with pet-lovers through a few rounds of puppy-hugging (at a time when several of his fellow MPs were under investigation for unwelcome people-hugging), the self-reinventing Gove presented himself at the annual Oxford Farming Conference in early January as the visionary who would lead England’s greens and farmers into a sustainable new world, ridding them of the constraints that he claimed were imposed by the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy (CAP).
A seemingly plausible speech
In a speech called Farming for the next generation, Gove began by talking about the age of acceleration and ended by slamming the breaks on the changes which he described as being so necessary. He rightly won plaudits for many of his proposals for wide-ranging adjustments in UK food management policies. However, by focusing on the long-term, he conveniently avoided any consideration of the how the food and farming sector should respond to the earthquake that would be triggered by the hard Brexit that he and Boris Johnson have been relentlessly bullying Theresa May to subscribe to, He also exonerated himself and the present government from taking any serious action to implement his new policies, claiming that farmers and land managers would need time to prepare themselves for the changes.
The core of Gove’s talk centred on the need to be open to change, the opportunity to move away from “the path dictated by the CAP”, and the case for improving the efficiency of his department. He then went on to call for policies that place farming within broader measures to improve “the food-chain as a whole and recognise the economic, health and environmental forces shaping the future of food”. Significantly, he made the point that we should move away “from subsidies for inefficiency to public money for public goods” – the principal public good being “environmental enhancement”.
Many of us would welcome this agenda for change in food management policies. It is long overdue. The UK is facing severe food management problems which it has not taken seriously. Its food policies have led to the growth of unsustainable intensive farming systems – damaging soils, fresh water and biodiversity, and contributing substantially to greenhouse gas emissions. Its farmers would mostly go bust if they were not heavily subsidised by the EU. Food chain workers, often migrants, are at the bottom of the pay scale and often exploited. Consumers bin £17 billion worth of avoidable food waste each year. The UK is also the fattest nation in Europe and will face massive future food-related health burdens.
Four reasons for scepticism
Gove’s speech touches on some plausible solutions to these complex issues. However, we cannot take him as seriously as he would hope for four main reasons:
First, seemingly for the purposes of buying the support of farmers in a next election, he is in absolutely no hurry to implement his own proposals.This is strange, given his November 2016 call for a “quickie divorce” from the EU. Instead, referring to the Basic Payments Scheme, which channels £2.4 billion per year as direct payments to farmers according to the land area that they manage, he envisages “guaranteeing that BPS payments continue for a transition period… which should last a number of years beyond the implementation period, depending on consultation”. While offering some greater certainty for British farmers who now earn almost half their net income from EU subsidies, this is a blatant open-ended commitment to prolong them for at least another 6 years, in spite of implicitly blaming them as “barriers to progress”.
Secondly, though he claims that “leaving the European Union allows us to deliver the policies required … to deliver a Green Brexit”, almost all of his recommendations could be applied today in the UK through his department using its considerable existing discretionary powers in CAP implementation. Moreover, his proposals are entirely compatible with the EU’s proposals for CAP reform, prepared with British engagement and launched last November, and so their implementation would not in any way be hindered by remaining in the EU.
Thirdly, Gove admirably promises additional funds to help farmers move to more sustainable land management systems. Where the unspecified amount of money would come from is anyone’s guess if Britain, as he would wish, goes for a Brexit that reduces its overall fiscal resources and limits its borrowing powers. In the referendum campaign, Gove promised extra funds for the NHS but we are still to see them,Bow he expects farmers to believe his promises of more money, Can he really be trusted to deliver?
Finally, the Secretary of State conveniently fails to acknowledge the inherent advantages of EU membership in facilitating intense inter-country collaboration in dealing with the many cross-border trade, animal and human health, food safety, environmental and climate change issues relating to food system management. The benefits of scale and efficiency offered by the existing UK-EU arrangements are vast and would be difficult to replicate under any new relationship, especially if it excluded membership of the single market and customs union. New challenges are arising all the time, and it is in Britain’s interest to have a seat at the table when decisions are taken on how to address them.
Driven more by personal ambition than national interest
Michael Gove has made a brave attempt to convince us that he is the statesman we need to lead our country out of the crisis that he helped to create. He has set out an attractive long-term vision of how to better manage Britain’s food system, its natural resources, and the welfare of people engaged in the food chain. But he does not have the guts to go ahead now with implementing his own proposals as a matter of urgency: instead he proposes an indefinite calendar that sadly puts his own ambitions ahead of the national interest.
Let us not forget that Michael Gove is a principal architect and aggressive advocate of a hard Brexit whose pursuit has already led to a massive devaluation of the pound sterling and pushed up food prices for consumers: it now threatens to undermine the smooth working of the overall food management system, causing huge uncertainties for farmers about markets and prices, standards and labour availability.
Maybe the time has come to elevate this wolf in sheep’s clothing to the House of Lords and let May muddle on till she stumbles irretrievably.
Hopefully the opposition parties can get their act together and propose policies and fast-acting programmes for bringing about urgently needed changes in the UK’s food system and environmental management, whether the country remains in Europe or goes it alone. Gove, however, has unfortunately – and, presumably, deliberately – complicated this task by promising farmers continued access to CAP-style direct subsidies with no end in sight.