As we approach the end of the Summer recess the political world turns to party conference season. Yet never have the conferences taken place in such a febrile atmosphere with Brexit dominating everything. Our new Prime Minister has made clear that we are leaving the EU on 31 October deal or no deal. Parliament takes, or at least has taken, an entirely different view. Yet while MPs may not want a no deal, they are still no closer to agreeing any alternative. No matter how often we delay our departure, and delay is in the EU’s gift not ours, we will be no closer to finding a way forward. The legal default remains that we leave on 31 October.
When MPs return on 3 September it is expected that the Government will face a motion of no confidence. If it loses MPs may try to put together an alternative administration which commands a majority in the Commons. Given the opposition of the Liberal Democrats to a Jeremy Corbyn led caretaker administration, and the fact that even some Labour MPs seem reluctant to see him installed in Downing street, a General Election is a real possibility. Whether the PM can use a General Election to dissolve Parliament and then put polling day safely beyond the 31st October, effectively preventing Parliament having any further say on Brexit, is almost as hotly debated as Brexit itself. Brexit is testing our constitutional arrangements to breaking point. What will Speaker Bercow do? Where does this leave HM the Queen? Nothing seems certain except the uncertainty.
This uncertainty is a cause for great concern across all sectors of the economy but particularly for rural communities, businesses and farmers. Despite accelerated Brexit preparations, it is generally agreed that it will be food producers and processors who will be most immediately and hardest hit, at least in the short term. There is no clarity as to what the post Brexit world will look like and how we will support UK agriculture in the longer term. Yes, we all know that payments for production will end in favour of ‘public money for public goods’, but how public goods are valued and payments calculated is not clear. Will the public goods which hill farmers can deliver, maintaining iconic upland landscapes such as the Lake District, result in payments sufficient to ensure a viable future for upland communities? The Countryside Alliance is pushing for an amendment to the Agriculture Bill to ensure that the very particular needs of our uplands are recognised, but the Bill has made no progress in Parliament since November last year. We are still awaiting the Environment Bill, without which we will have few mechanisms for monitoring and enforcing environmental law. We know Defra is fully aware of the challenges we face and are making progress. Yet, too often Defra’s announcements do not seem to reflect the countryside’s priorities, but rather the increasingly shrill demands of a small number of animal rights extremists. Animal Welfare is important, but we already have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, and country men and women who do an outstanding job of managing our wildlife, landscapes and environment, as well as producing world class food.
With a new Secretary of State in Theresa Villiers, we will be looking to her and her team to make our priorities theirs, rather than the demands of a few animal rights extremists. The Alliance looks forward to continuing to work with the Defra team and making the voice of the countryside heard, through the uncertain times ahead.