Michael Gove will want his say on Scottish farming

New UK farming ministers '“ and there have been quite a number in recent years '“ have nearly always seen, as an essential part of their visits to Scotland, the need to stress their family or business links with the natives of Northern Britain.
Michael Gove will be keen to hit the ground running at the Royal Highland Show. Picture: Kimberley PowellMichael Gove will be keen to hit the ground running at the Royal Highland Show. Picture: Kimberley Powell
Michael Gove will be keen to hit the ground running at the Royal Highland Show. Picture: Kimberley Powell

Owen Paterson did it, as did Caroline Spelman, although it must be admitted that the most recent ex-farming minister, Andrea Leadsom, never got round to expressing her empathy with Scottish rural life unless it was with the butterflies that live in the hills. Neither did her predecessor, Liz Truss – but then she never ever said anything at all.

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It is unlikely the latest politician in charge of Defra, Michael Gove, will find it necessary to highlight his return to the land of his birth and where he first worked when he comes to the Royal Highland Show this week.

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In the political world, he belies his smallish stature with a reputation as a big hitter although it has to be admitted the blows he strikes are not always on the front of the body. As one of “big beasts” of government, he has been welcomed by some farming leaders who have been starved of anyone of quality and ambition sitting in the Defra seat for some considerable length of time.

Gove is politically ambitious and he will want to leap back into the Westminster maelstrom after a spell looking after the countryside portfolio. If he does, he will join a select band as most of the recent Defra Ministers have seen their political careers finish in the graveyard that is Defra.

Ahead of his visit, Defra has issued a statement with the minister praising the contribution food and drink makes to the national economy. This is bog standard stuff for new ministers or rather their civil servants, providing a soft, feel-good introduction to his portfolio.

But being quiet and non-controversial is not Gove’s style. He has been festering in the political wilderness for the past year following his badly judged lunge for the Prime Minister’s job.

It will be unusual if he does not use the Highland showground as a backdrop to saying something significant about farm policy post-CAP; thus hopefully removing some of the policy mist that has shrouded the issue since the Brexit vote 12 months ago.

Gove’s presence at the show and the start of the Brexit negotiations will give an added frisson to any statements from Fergus Ewing, the Scottish rural economy minister at the same event.

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It has not been a good month for Ewing. He has seen the political map of Scotland change from an almost universal golden colour to one where there are big dobs of blue and smaller splotches of red and yellow.

While Ewing’s party hold sway in the towns and cities, opposition parties now control most of the countryside. That is not a particularly comfortable position for a rural affairs minister.

Part of the political shift is undoubtedly due to the faulty computer responsible for farm payments. Last week, the Audit Office once again highlighted the failings of the £178 million computer and the now very real threat of a multi-million pound fine for failing to hit EU payment targets. It is a mess and opposition politicians are stoking the fire as much as the Government would if the boot was on the other foot.

In the run-up to the show, Ewing has also used the latest food and drink export figures showing an 11 per cent rise in the first quarter of 2017 as proof of the strength of the Scottish economy and the need to retain European markets.

That is good news but farmers attending the show will want to know what the Scottish Government intend doing in drafting out post Brexit support policies. The votes in the general election prove they are weary of the “blame Westminster” routine.

Both ministers and the various other politicians attending the Highland Show will face a re-invigorated NFU who, in the absence of anything from government, intend laying out their preferred policy path to the future.

Farming is a long-term business and unless the politicos provide long-term plans, then food exports may well cease to be sufficiently significant to merit future press releases.