DEFRA secretary’s conference speech is full of bold talk on the environment but short on detail – especially when it comes to Brexit. By Nick Hughes.
Last week, the Print predicted that Michael Gove wouldn’t be quite so reticent in promoting his vision for food and the environment following the non-appearance of his Labour shadow on the conference main stage.
And so it proved on Monday in Manchester, where Gove announced his arrival with a wry gag at his own expense, noting: “No one is a bigger supporter of reusing once discarded material than me.”
The speech was vintage Gove – lyrical, radical in places, and provocative.
He began with a defiant rebuke of politicians such as Tony Blair and Vince Cable who have called for the EU referendum result to be overturned, and continued to reel out some of his greatest hits from the campaign trail, including the defining slogan: “We’re taking back control.”
Britain will make a success of life outside the EU, said Gove, and nowhere are the possibilities for progress greater than with the environment – a nod to the high level of equivalence between EU and UK regulation.
What set Gove’s speech apart from those of previous Conservative DEFRA secretaries was his focus on the E of DEFRA rather than the F. While the likes of Andrea Leadsom, Liz Truss and Owen Paterson interpreted their brief as boosting the production and export of British food, Gove speaks the language of environmentalism.
He rattled through a list of threats to life on earth: from global warming and the loss of precious habitats and species to pollution, in the form of nitrogen oxide, that endangers human health.
Gove claimed that Conservatives are “instinctive defenders of beauty in the landscape” and “protectors of wildlife” and, somewhat contentiously, argued that “the first, and still the most ambitious, green party in this country is the Conservative Party”.
His speech was passionate and poetic in places and conveyed a (seemingly) genuine enchantment with the natural world.
Those seeking more detail in the picture Gove was painting, however, would have left the auditorium disappointed – this was a broad-brush speech which steered clear of tackling the complexity involved in untangling the UK from 40 years of EU policy.
Gove spoke of the “disastrous” EU Common Fisheries Policy and the opportunity after Brexit to “take back control of our territorial waters” and “let in others only on our terms” – all good populist stuff – but he failed to address the reality that the vast majority of fish landed by UK vessels in UK ports is exported to the EU due to a lack of demand at home. Maintaining cordial relations with the EU will surely be critical if the UK seafood industry is to remain competitive in the long term.
Elsewhere, there was succour for green groups in pledges to stop subsidising the rich on the basis of how much land they own and instead spend money on enhancing the environment and reviving rural communities.
Talk of improving animal welfare and supporting more humane methods of farming will also have played well with campaigners. But while Gove talked up his ambition to secure free-trade deals so that British farmers can sell more of their “wonderful produce” overseas, his speech lacked an explanation of how he could simultaneously hope to raise British standards and secure free trade with countries with weaker standards, without disadvantaging UK producers.
Gove concluded with a single new policy proposal, which successfully ensured significant column inches for his speech. Following the proposed ban on plastic microbeads, he announced the launch of a call for evidence to consider the viability of a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles and other drinks containers in England, an issue under examination by the Commons environmental audit committee.
It was a clever move aimed at shoring up his credentials as an environmental evangelist without rocking the industry’s boat too severely. The plastic bag charge, it should be noted, took years to come to fruition, while Coca-Cola dropped its opposition to a deposit return scheme in Scotland earlier this year.
Gove is nothing if not an astute political operator. But greater tests of his environmentalism lie ahead as clearer details of a post-Brexit arrangement for food and the environment are demanded.