Few politicians divide opinion like Michael Gove. The newly appointed Defra secretary has a reputation for being a heavy-hitter – which some farmers need as Brexit negotiations get under way. But he also has his flaws.
No sector will be affected by Brexit more than farming. The industry receives some £3 billion annually in support payments from Brussels. But it is also subject to massive amounts of bureaucracy – some of it necessary but much of it needless.
As has often been said, Brexit is an opportunity to change all that – to abolish the much-hated three-crop rule, to ease restrictions on hedge-cutting during the summer months and to free farmers to do what they do best: produce some of the best food in the world.
Brexit is also an opportunity to open up markets across the world. But it could also close the door on tariff-free access to our closest and most important market – the European Union itself. Whether farmers thrive or merely survive will depend on a good trade deal between the UK and EU.
At times like this, it is good to have friends in high places. And Mr Gove has the potential to be a good friend for the industry – sitting in on Brexit talks as negotiations take place. Not since David Miliband (2006-2007) has such a high-profile politician been Defra secretary.
But everyone has their flaws – and Mr Gove is no exception. Can he be trusted? We will have to wait and see. His misjudged political ‘knifing’ of Boris Johnson ahead of last year’s Tory leadership contest shows he is not averse to Machiavellian scheming.
Soon after his appointment, Mr Gove suggested it was possible for consumers to have cheap food while at the same time maintaining high production standards. Most farmers will rightly raise at least one eyebrow at such a statement.
Farmers face a great deal of uncertainty at the moment – and not just from the weather. Confidence and morale both need a boost if the agricultural sector is to realise its potential – both in the run-up to Brexit and the years beyond.
If he is to avoid accusations of being a ‘soundbite politician’, Mr Gove could do much to boost that confidence by spending the summer getting to grips with his brief and explaining to the industry how he will ensure that Brexit is an opportunity for farmers, rather than a threat.