Boris Johnson’s hopes of surviving as Prime Minister have been hit hard after farmers and environmentalists condemned his government’s post-Brexit food strategy as a disaster for rural dwellers – with less than two weeks to go until a key rural by-election.
In an interview with the ObserverNational Farmers Union president Minette Batters said ambitious proposals to help farmers increase food production, first put forward last year by the government’s food czar, Henry Dimbleby , had been “stripped to the bone” in a new policy document, and meant farmers would not be able to produce affordable food.
Batters said she told the Prime Minister on Friday that farmers – including those in the West Country headquarters of Tiverton and Honiton, where a crucial by-election will take place on June 23 – were furious with post-Brexit policies which, would make them poorer and prevent them from competing with foreign producers.
The by-election, prompted by the resignation of Tory MP Neil Parish for watching pornography on his phone in the Commons, is seen as key to Boris Johnson’s chances of staying in Downing Street, after suffering a deadly 148-year uprising. Conservative MPs in a vote of confidence. Last week.
The Liberal Democrats are trying to overthrow a Conservative majority of 24,239 in the seat in what would be one of the biggest by-election shocks in recent times. If the Tories lost the election to the Liberal Democrats and Labor retook Wakefield from them on the same day, many Tory MPs believe Johnson will not be able to survive as Prime Minister.
Last night farmers at West Country headquarters said the farming community would vote en masse against the Tories. Indeed, they faced a combination of lost income from subsidies and pressure to prioritize the environment over food production, as the country needed to become more self-sufficient in food.
A full-scale rural revolt in the by-election would add to the PM’s problems over Partygate and the cost of living crisis, which are already hitting Tory support.
Commenting on the government’s new food strategy, disclosed to the Guardian On Friday, Batters said she was ‘pleased to see a commitment to food safety’, but added that the original strategy had been ‘stripped down’ and there was no longer a plan on how to implement its general objectives.
‘We want to eat more British and more local food, but again I’m just asking how,’ she said, adding: ‘It’s fine to have words, but it takes delivery is really meaningful and we don’t see that in this document yet.”
Batters said he met with Johnson on Friday and told him farmers wanted support to produce food, as well as help the environment. “I said that’s what the farmers of Tiverton want to see. Farmers want detail. She said that currently there is no clear policy.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it would not comment on the strategy document until it is released on Monday.
Farmers are increasingly disenchanted, having been promised that their previous EU subsidies would be fully replaced after Brexit. Instead, they are being phased out, with basic payments being cut by 20% this year. Furthermore, they say the scheme to pay them for adopting green policies such as planting new trees and hedges and building new ponds (known as rewilding) remains vague and confusing.
Jake Fiennes, sustainable farmer and author of Land Healer: how farming can save the UK countryside, said, “It’s a rather weak 27-page document that says nothing. I see the agricultural sector disappointed, I see declining environmental ambition, I see a very myopic vision. Food security and environmental resilience are the challenges of this generation and it is so depressing.
John Westcott, a cattle and sheep farmer from Bampton, near Tiverton, told the Observer that “most farmers would vote against the Conservatives not because they wanted to in the long term, but because their policies did nothing to help them and hurt their businesses”.
Tim Farron, the former Lib Dem leader and now the party’s rural affairs spokesman, described the new strategy as “timid” and representing “no real change”.
Henry Dimbleby was commissioned by the government to produce a study that would tackle the obesity crisis as well as the affordability of healthy food. He was also asked to show how it could be done in an environmentally friendly way.
But his ambitious recommendations, including the expansion of free school meals, a 30% reduction in meat and dairy consumption and strong protection for UK farmers by not undermining them in trade deals with other countries, were not adopted.
His method has been hailed by organic farmers as a model for making Britain food self-sufficient without compromising the environment and helping farmers transition from intensive farming.