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5 October 2017

This row over agriculture shows why there’s no such thing as a successful Brexit

At least as far as the Conservative Party goes. 

By Stephen Bush

Holding someone’s hand doesn’t buy you much these days: Donald Trump has thrown his weight behind efforts by the governments of Argentina, New Zealand, and Brazil to disrupt a deal between the 27 remaining nations of the European Union and the United Kingdom to divide their pre-agreed agricultural quotas at the WTO between themselves, facilitating a smooth exit from the bloc for British farming.

Trump’s reasoning? Like Brasilia, Buenos Aires and Wellington, the administration in Washington wants to use Brexit as an opportunity to open up the British consumer market to their agricultural products. In forcing the United Kingdom to start afresh at the WTO, they can lobby for greater access to British supermarkets.

In many cases, there is no public health difference between different food regulations. Take the row over chlorine-washed chicken: it’s just as safe to eat as chicken prepared under EU regulation. But in the United States, consumers can only choose to buy chickens prepared the American way, while in the EU, it’s only EU-regulation friendly chicken that is on the shelves. Most countries also erect quotas to protect their own domestic agricultural industries.

Now countries across the world hope that Brexit is an opportunity for more Argentinian beef, more New Zealand lamb, and more American chicken in British supermarkets. For British consumers, this is unambiguously good news. A wider choice of products means price competition, which means that the food in supermarkets will be cheaper. So, great news, right?

For the United Kingdom in the round, perhaps. (I’m deliberately neglecting the questions about whether the UK, for environmental or defence-related reasons, want to preserve and even expand the size of its domestic agricultural production as it’s besides the point being raised here.) But for the Conservatives, it’s not good news at all. Why?

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Well, because for British farmers, it isn’t good news. While the United Kingdom could liberalise what food we sell here, it can’t liberalise what food is bought over there. There will still be sharp restrictions about what British farmers can sell into the European Union, the nations of the Commonwealth, and the likes of Brazil and Argentina.

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That may restrict British farmers to either one other market or the domestic market solely. That in the domestic market the effects of competition will push food prices lower will further increase the pressure on farming.

Now, of course it may be that decreasing the cost of the average family’s weekly shop raises the number of people feeling prosperous, and thus willing to reward the incumbent government. But the difficulty is that thanks to the British electoral system, not all votes are created equal.

If falling food prices make a bunch of people in Diane Abbott’s Hackney North constituency more pro-Conservative, and 15,000 people switch from Labour to Conservative, you’ve still got a fairly healthy Labour majority. But if for those 15,000 people in Hackney North, 13,000 make the switch in the other direction in Gavin Williamson’s South Staffordshire seat, then a Conservative stronghold becomes a Labour-held marginal.  

This is why talk of the Conservatives doing better “from a successful Brexit” misses the point slightly. There are plenty of possible economically successful Brexits for the United Kingdom in the round that are electorally painful for the Conservative Party. (An economically unsuccessful Brexit is also electorally painful for reasons too obvious to go into here.) 

As I’ve written before, the arguments over Brexit, and the electoral difficulties it poses for the party implementing it, will linger long after we leave the EU. Trump is just the latest politician to demonstrate why.