Joyce McMillan: Theresa May's Minister for Food is recipe for disaster

Has there ever been a ministerial appointment under such profoundly ridiculous circumstances, wonders Joyce McMillan.

If any further proof were needed of the Dad’s Army spirit that now pervades much Tory thinking on Brexit, it came this week, when news emerged that the Prime Minister has appointed a new government minister in the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, with responsibility for food supplies.

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It’s arguable, of course, that Britain should have had a food minister long ago, given the amount of highly-processed junk food now consumed on these islands, and the extent of the consequent obesity crisis. 
The new minister, though, is not there to reduce our intake of fat and sugar, but to deal with the possibility of a serious breakdown in the UK’s food supply chain, in the event of the no-deal Brexit that now seems increasingly likely; and it is worth pondering whether a nation has ever before had to appoint a minister for food under such profoundly ridiculous circumstances, induced not by war, nor yet by a catastrophic series of crop failures, but by UK voters’ knife-edge 2016 decision to leave the world’s largest trading bloc, which provides 30 per cent of the food we eat, without any alternative food supply plan even being mentioned during the campaign.

"Its arguable, of course, that Britain should have had a food minister long ago, given the amount of highly-processed junk food now consumed on these islands." Picture: Ben Birchall/PA.

Nicola Sturgeon referred to the situation as “shameful”; and the anti-Brexit radio host James O’Brien pungently declared on twitter that “we are about to become the first country in history ever to impose economic sanctions on ourselves.”

And before we can move on, and begin to think of solutions to this monumental mess, it is important to try to understand how we reached this point.

Of course, a narrow majority of those who turned out in 2016 voted to leave the EU. What is not true, though, is that the vote, driven by a multiplicity of reasons and motives, led inevitably to the situation in which we now find ourselves.

Right from the outset - as the Scottish government pointed out in a well-argued paper of December 2016 - there have been many options available for an orderly exit from the EU.

The last British Minister for Food (1954-1958) British Conservative politician Derick Heathcoat-Amory. Picture: Getty

The best of these, and the one perhaps most reflective of the real balance of UK opinion, would have been the EFTA option, which would have involved remaining in the single market and probably the Customs Union, and accepting large rafts of EU regulations and some reciprocal freedom of movement, while disentangling ourselves from the main EU political institutions; and if Theresa May had been any kind of stateswoman, or unifying national leader, she would have adopted that solution on her first day as Prime Minister, and told her party colleagues to live with it, or chuck her out.

Instead, though, in a farcical soap-opera of capitulation to the noisy and well-connected “big beasts” on the right of her own party, Theresa May has lurched from the pro-Remain position she adopted during the referendum campaign, towards her current preposterous insistence that Brexit must mean an end to all freedom of movement, an absolute rejection of any rules administered by the European Court of Justice, and, therefore, not a hint of the kind of single market or Customs Union that might enable the UK to leave the EU without a major breach of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.

Why she has allowed herself to be pushed into adopting this ‘ultra’ Brexit position is not entirely clear, despite the sheer noise generated by the right-wing claque around Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg; but she has allowed it, and as a result, the nation now faces the strong possibility of a disastrous no-deal Brexit.

All of which should make it crystal clear that this is a crisis generated by the Conservative party out of its own internal tensions, and inflamed into looming disaster by that same party, and their chosen leader. It is possible to speculate at length about the forces behind this Tory crisis, from Second World War nostalgia raised to the level of psychosis, to fear of new EU financial regulations that might put an end to the UK’s status as sponsor of some of the world’s dodgiest tax havens.

Whatever the cause, though, the party has comprehensively demonstrated that it is currently unfit for government, disunited, chaotic, and - in its approach to Brexit - almost delusional; and the question that stalks this year’s conference season is whether any other party will step up to administer the outright defeat, both in the Commons and at the ballot box, that the Tories now so richly deserve.

The SNP has done its best; but even in Scotland, it struggles to get past the profound hostility of that part of the electorate that somehow prefers even this Tory party, and even this Brexit, to any suggestion of Scottish independence.

The Liberal Democrats are still unable to overcome the reputation for untrustworthiness they won in 2010, when they got into bed with the Tories, and broke their word on student fees.

And Labour - well, Labour remains the unknown quantity in all of this, the party of Remainers whose leader wants to leave, and whose position on Brexit has so far been as chaotic as that of the Tories.

This week in Liverpool, though, Britain began to see just the faintest outline of a Labour Party perhaps fit for government, armed with a social-democratic economic policy that passes for radicalism in Britain, and an EU policy that at least allows for the possibility of remaining in the Customs Union, so as to protect Ireland’s open border.

I have no doubt that most exhausted UK voters would now accept that Brexit solution as preferable to the chaos of no deal; I think even the strong Remain majority in Scotland would see it as a better option than any other that now seems within reach.

Whether that faint glimmer of a possible better future for Britain will be enough to shift the required millions of votes, though, remains in doubt; and here in Scotland, come the next UK general election, it will have to slug it out with the competing dream of an independent Scotland back in the heart of Europe, in what should - and perhaps will - be an epic struggle for Scottish hearts and minds.