By Mark Wallace
Few politicians know better than Michael Gove the difficulties that can be involved in navigating competing interest groups. At the Department for Education, he famously decided that a side had to be taken – that it was necessary to challenge “the Blob” in order to champion the rights of children and their parents in the educations system. Had his time at the Ministry of Justice been longer, I suspect he might have ended up in conflict with vested interests in that sector in order to reform the failing rehabilitation aspect of the prison system.
So his experience means he is forewarned about the challenges of running the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The brief itself has conflicting responsibilities – while a successful food policy should seek to make the cost of living more affordable for consumers, others would feel price-raising protectionism would be a desirable service to the rural economy, for example. DEFRA’s field is also replete with pressure groups, lobbyists and special interests of every hue, from environmentalists to the NFU and beyond. It’s impossible to see how any Secretary of State could ever please all of them at the same time.
We can glean some insight as to how Gove sees these challenges, and how he might navigate them, in his speech promising a “Green Brexit”, delivered to the World Wildlife Fund UK today. In his praise for the environmental movement, there’s a detectable indicator that he’s well aware of the campaigning forces in whose territory he must work:
“Environmental organisations – from WWF to the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts to Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth – enjoy memberships in the tens and hundreds of thousands, the support of millions more and a capacity to move hearts more powerful than any other set of institutions in our civil society.”
His speech made an appeal to such groups for their support in using the new powers regained by leaving the EU. But while Gove, ever the optimist, laid out his case, he was surely aware that many of these groups are distinctly unenthusiastic about leaving the EU at all. In that sense, his speech was about more than the priorities of his and the Government’s policies – it was another push to encourage people to think about making the most of a post-Brexit future, rather than continuing to dwell on the referendum question. Rather than lament the passing of the Commission’s control of farming, fisheries and environmental policy, he invited his audience to consider and contribute to what comes next:
“…we have an opportunity, outside the EU, to design more effective, more rigorous and more responsive institutions and other means of holding individuals and organisations to account for environmental outcomes.”
It’s in the nature of the current stage of policy-making, and of the Brexit negotiations, that he was discussing founding principles rather than specific new policies. But those principles themselves carry some indications of the plans – and, inevitably, battles – that lie ahead. Most interesting is the question of how to reform the Common Agricultural Policy. Gove is right to highlight its illogic, its impracticality and its many absurdities. Not least, the fact of taxpayers subsidising extremely wealthy landowners for the simple fact of owning a certain area came in for justified criticism.
Implicit in his remarks is the intention that subsidies should continue where needed, but not necessarily delivered in the same way, on the same scale, or to the same people. Notably at various points he approvingly cited the ecological role of “hill farmers or island crofters, or those running small family farms in England and Northern Ireland” and “those land owners and managers who cultivate and protect the range of habitats which will encourage biodiversity” and criticised the CAP as a system that “puts resources in the hands of the already wealthy rather than into the common good of our shared natural environment”.
Reform founded on those principles will necessarily divide opinion. There will be winners and losers. Those farmers who continue to get support will no doubt support that decision, but it’s easy to foresee opposition among “the already wealthy” if they stand to miss out on money that they currently receive. As with any change, the latter group can be expected to be a lot more vocal than the former. Indeed, ConservativeHome gathers that some Tory MPs are already grouping together into a backbench farming lobby – a group that could cause some trouble to a minority government, if it so wished.
That helps to explain why Gove delivered his remarks today to an audience from the green movement, and targeted his case so squarely at their concerns. If there are debates ahead, potentially with opposition from powerful and well-funded lobbies, then he could certainly do with getting some support from the environmental movement for his Green Brexit.