Boris Johnson’s hopes of surviving as prime minister were dealt a blow after farmers and environmentalists condemned his administration’s post-Brexit food strategy as a disaster for rural people – with less than two weeks left before a major national by-election.
In an interview with the ObserverNational Farmers Union president Minette Batters said ambitious proposals to help farmers increase food production, first put forth last year by government food czar Henry Dimbleby, in a new policy paper “until on the bone” were “stripped down” and meant that farmers would not be able to produce affordable food.
Batters said she told the prime minister on Friday that farmers — including those in the West Country seats of Tiverton and Honiton, where a pivotal by-election will be held on June 23 — were outraged by the post-Brexit policies they believed were it would make them poorer and poorer. making them unable to compete with foreign producers.
The by-election, triggered by the resignation of Tory MP Neil Parish for watching pornography on his phone in the House of Commons, is seen as crucial to Boris Johnson’s chances of remaining on Downing Street after he suffered a bruise from a confidence vote by 148 Tory MPs last week.
The Liberal Democrats are looking to topple a 24,239 Tory majority in the seat in what would be one of the biggest midterm election shocks of recent times. If the Conservatives lose the election to the Lib Dems and Labor recapture Wakefield from them on the same day, many Tory MPs think Johnson will not be able to survive as Prime Minister.
Last night, farmers in the West Country seat said the farming community would vote massively against the Tories. This was because they faced a combination of revenue loss from subsidies and pressure to prioritize the environment over food production, while the country needed to become more self-sufficient in food.
A large-scale nationwide uprising in the by-election would exacerbate the Prime Minister’s problems over Partygate and the cost of living, which are already hitting Tory support.
Commentary on the government’s new food strategy, leaked to the Guardian on Friday, Batters said she was “happy with the pursuit of food security,” but added that the original strategy had been “stripped down to the bone” and there was no longer a plan to implement its overall goals.
“We want more British food and more local food but again I’m just asking how,” she said, adding: “It’s all good to have words but it has to have really meaningful delivery and we’re not seeing that yet in this document.”
Batters said she met Johnson Friday and told him farmers wanted to be supported to produce food and help the environment. “I said that’s what farmers in Tiverton want to see. Farmers want details.” She said there was no clear policy at this time.
The Ministry of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it would not comment on the strategy paper until it is released on Monday.
Farmers have become increasingly disappointed as they have been promised that their previous EU subsidies would be completely replaced after Brexit. Instead, they are being phased out, with basic payments cut by 20% this year. In addition, they say the scheme designed to pay them for adopting green policies, such as planting new trees and hedges and creating new ponds (known as rewilding), remains vague and confusing.
Jake Fiennes, a sustainable farmer and author of Land healer: how farming can save Britain’s rural areas, said: “It’s a rather weak 27-page document that says nothing. I see the agricultural sector disappointed, I see the environmental ambition down, I see a very short-sighted view. Food security and environmental resilience are the challenges of this generation and it is so depressing.”
John Wescott, a cattle and sheep farmer from Bampton, near Tiverton, told the… Observer that “most farmers would vote against the conservatives, not because they wanted it to be long-term, but because their policies were doing them nothing and hurting their businesses.”
Tim Farron, the former Lib Dem leader and now spokesperson for the rural affairs party, described the new strategy as “timid” and represented “no real change”.
Henry Dimbleby was commissioned by the government to write a review that would address both the obesity crisis and the affordability of healthy food. He was also asked to show how this can be done in an environmentally friendly way.
But his ambitious recommendations, including expanding free school meals, a 30% reduction in meat and dairy consumption and giving British farmers strong protections by not undermining them in trade deals with other countries, have not been adopted.
His method has been hailed by organic farmers as a blueprint to make Britain self-sufficient in food without compromising the environment, and to help farmers move away from intensive farming.