How the election could help the countryside
BY calling a General Election, Theresa May has seized the agenda and placed herself firmly in charge. Up to now, she’s been widely characterised as a safe pair of hands. With even her detractors admitting there’s no credible alternative, this has kept the show on the road, but it’s no basis for international leadership.
When the Brexit negotiations really get going, Mrs May will face three key leaders, all newly elected: the President of France, the Chancellor of Germany and the Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Fresh from their successful campaigns, they would be negotiating with a British Prime Minister for whom nobody voted—not even the Conservative Party.
Mrs May is undoubtedly her party’s choice, but unconfirmed by any electoral process, simply by acclamation on the withdrawal of Andrea Leadsom. She could so easily be portrayed by other leaders as the ‘accidental Prime Minister’, whose policies were untested and untried by the British people, catapulted into office by a referendum whose result she opposed.
Now, Mrs May has shown her mettle. The failure of commentators and political pundits to guess her intention, the complete absence of leaks and her clear explanation of why she changed her mind ensured almost universal support for the decision. Even so, it’s not without its dangers. Elections are tricky things, even when the polls are so much in your favour. A week is, indeed, a long time in politics and nearly two months an eternity, but the prize is significant.
By calling an election, she has taken control of the agenda and made it her agenda. In that sense, the election sets Mrs May free—it will be her manifesto, her campaign and, if she wins a sizeable majority, her Parliament. That not only improves her ability to negotiate the best Brexit result, but gives her a much better chance of delivering the deal she makes without undue push-back from the more gung-ho of her colleagues. The fact that she will not be up against an inflexible election timetable also gives her elbow-room to agree the transitional period that, increasingly, seems necessary.
All this means that there is no way in which campaigning will move far from Brexit. At the best of times, country people have a problem in getting political parties to concern themselves with rural issues; it will be well nigh impossible in this election. That makes it even more important that we ensure that Brexit rhetoric doesn’t move away from promising continued support for farming and the environment. Both major parties have plenty of people who are gagging to redistribute the £3 billion currently spent on CAP payments to their favourite causes, from tax cuts to the NHS.
In the heat of the campaign, commitments can easily be made that could undermine our agriculture and place our farmers at the mercy of subsidised foreign imports. We need to press for a continuation of the present system for as long as possible and proper transitional arrangements thereafter so that we have time to adjust to the new world outside the EU.
This means that the election could be a real bonus for the rural community. No party will want the diversionary unpopularity that proposing dramatic agricultural changes could engender. There will, therefore, be a premium in keeping the future of farm support off the agenda. The NFU and CLA need to make common cause so that Mrs May moves into default mode, promising no change as far ahead as possible. There’s no better outcome on offer, so we had better make sure this commitment is in the bag.
‘By calling an election, she has taken control of the agenda and made it her agenda ’