Good luck, Mr Gove!

Country Life Every Week - - Letters To The Editor -

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

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