Good luck, Mr Gove!
AFTER a train crash of an election, Theresa May is picking up the pieces. This has meant a new Secretary of State for the countryside ministry, Defra. The stopgap Andrea Leadsom won’t be missed and, already, Michael Gove has given new energy to the position. In a flurry of activity, he’s established his determination to make a success of a job for which he never appeared to be the natural choice. He isn’t a countryman and doesn’t move among country people. He and his wife, the journalist Sarah Vine, are metropolitan people, who enjoy London society, yet Mr Gove has significant intelligence, will enjoy the mastering of a complex brief and recognises he has a reputation to recover.
The media has largely missed the real significance of his appointment. Defra is going to play a key part in the Brexit situation, both in negotiations and in the farming settlement afterwards, and the complex mix of agriculture, environment, food security, imports and tariffs will demand considerable intellectual agility and grasp. That can’t be left to the Farming Minister George Eustice, who, although a farmer himself and a thoroughly decent man, lacks the flexibility and imagination this will demand. The job needs the brainpower and critical capacity that Mr Gove can bring.
What’s more, Mr Gove needs a success. His reputation suffered severely in the Leave campaign. He had previously been viewed as an honourable, if uncomfortable, colleague, but his refusal to disavow statements that were wrong and his spat with Boris Johnson over the party leadership have left him politically wounded, even among those who share his views on the EU. So much so, it was widely thought that, when Rupert Murdoch gave him a column in The Times, it presaged a return to journalism as editor. Now back in the political fray, Mr Gove has to recover his reputation for competence and try to rebuild trust in his brand.
He starts with a significant advantage. Defra is changing radically. It has been unfit for purpose for much of the past decade, a ministry hollowed out by successive Treasury raids. Now, with Brexit in view, the whole process has been reversed and there is significant recruitment taking place, with hundreds of policy jobs being filled at the highest level. Suddenly, this Cinderella of a government department has become, for many, the go-to place in the Civil Service. Mr Gove will certainly have the human resources necessary if he’s to pave the way for a post-eu rural settlement.
His problem is that neither he, nor anyone else, knows what that settlement could be. He doesn’t know what Britain can negotiate, the farming community is resistant to any real change in the support system and the Treasury is poised to seize as much as possible of the £3 billion of government spend on agriculture. It’s a daunting task, but one Mr Gove might relish.
Therefore, perhaps Agromenes could give him a little advice. First, take your understanding of the countryside from your Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Lord Gardiner. A countryman to his fingertips and formerly with the Countryside Alliance, he’ll help you build bridges with the farming community.
Second, beware of preconceptions. Getting the new regime right requires imagination and flexibility, so don’t get stuck with particular solutions. Rely on David Kennedy, your politically astute Deputy Secretary, to chart the way through the parliamentary and administrative maze.
Last, show your real commitment to the environment, to combatting climate change and to ensuring that Brexit doesn’t mean lowering environmental standards or lessening protection. Establishing environmental credibility will be crucial for gaining public support for farm reform. Good luck!
‘Suddenly, this Cinderella of a government department has become, for many, the go-to place in the Civil Service