'˜Focus on whisky and all will be well, minister'
The following conversation is believed to have taken place last week in Defra's headquarters in London just hours before the minister, Andrea Leadsom, travelled north for her first official visit to Scotland.
Advising her in his best Sir Humphrey tones was her senior civil servant: “Yes I am afraid you do have to visit Scotland. It is expected of all new ministers, but do not worry, it is well planned and you can get through it all in a day, no problem.
“You fly up early in the morning and then nip round to NFU Scotland headquarters to meet their top men and take a canter through the issues. No minister, I did not make a mistake, all the top union people are men.
“Yes they will ask lots of difficult questions but you do not need to answer any of them other than superficially. A ‘Yes we understand’ or a ‘We will take that on board’ will be quite sufficient. No need to make any definite commitment.
“As you know minister, there are so many unresolved issues in this post-Brexit referendum world the last thing we want is to let them know we do not have a clue about the way forward.
“We have only allocated these union fellows 45 minutes, to make sure there is no time for any in-depth discussions. It will not be an ordeal and remember there is every chance they will have written a press statement already.
“We have then planned that you visit a distillery. Whisky always provides good, positive, non-controversial headlines for a visiting politician. They are always exporting lots and lots of it, so you can make a fine speech saying how wonderful it is and how it sets an example for the rest of the economy.
“There is no downside to the visit – but we would advise that you lay off the amber nectar until the official visit is over. You are then going to visit an artisan food producer making shortbread or oatcakes or something like that. Originally some thought had been given to you visiting a cheese maker, but that has become complicated by E Coli cases. The last thing we want is for you to be caught up in an emotive issue or knocked out of circulation by it.
“Again at the food producer there is nothing but good news. Keep pushing the ‘export more food’ line and it keeps everyone away from worrying about ghastly complicated policies on farm support.
“Another good point of this visit is you will not be bothered by any of those awful journalist fellows who tend to follow politicians around and ask awkward questions. We just told them to push off. They were told, ‘This is a private visit and we cannot afford to be wasting time speaking to you lot.’
“Well, we had to do that, minister, to prevent some of those smarty pants asking you what you meant when you said ‘The hills are for butterflies’. They will find out soon enough that is precisely what you meant.
“No, minister, that is not all. You will still have to meet the Scottish Government farming chappie. No doubt he will be binding on about getting livestock levy money back or moaning that the issue has been unresolved for years. We have made them an offer but no doubt it will not be enough or some such whine, but do not be tempted to do anything.
“Oh, and then he will have a go about Scottish farmers needing to get better payment rates per hectare to bring them alongside farmers down here. Again just say nice soothing words without giving any definite details. There will only be a few more years of area subsidies anyway, so no rush.
“I can see you are worried about all this lack of any firm statements during your visit and I appreciate your concern that by deferring them you might just be storing up problems for the future.
“Let me check. No, I think you are safe enough. There does not seem to have been a Defra minister in recent times who has survived long enough to need to make a second visit to Scotland.
“So just enjoy your visit and remember that your predecessor is now in charge of prisons in England.”