Political Print: Election result spells chaos for Brexit

Building a new food and farming policy takes personnel and expertise the UK simply doesn’t have. A tough task just got much harder, writes Nick Hughes.

Spare a thought for the civil service. While Friday morning’s election drama was unfolding to widespread incredulity, the people charged with actually administering Britain’s EU withdrawal found the difficulty of their task multiplied in a matter of hours.

Because for all Theresa May’s rhetorical posturing about whom the British public would want facing the EU across the negotiating table, it’s the army of subject matter experts employed in government departments that will do the heavy lifting behind the scenes.

Brexit will be a bureaucratic challenge like no other. Constructing a viable UK food and farming policy in the space of two years would stretch a civil service with a crystal-clear set of instructions from a majority government, such is the current degree of assimilation with EU law.

The evaporation of the Conservatives’ mandate to deliver Brexit on their own terms leaves a wounded minority government probably propped up by the Democratic Unionist Party. And so directionless negotiating and policy teams will be left twiddling their thumbs as the minutiae of every policy position is hammered out, while the clock ticks down relentlessly to March 29th 2019.

The EU is unlikely to offer a sympathetic ear. The morning after the vote, the European Council president, Donald Tusk, tweeted mischievously: “We don't know when Brexit talks start. We know when they must end.”

DEFRA especially is known to be frighteningly unprepared for the task that lies ahead. Headcount had fallen by a third in the decade leading up to the Brexit vote, reflecting the department’s low status within Whitehall. Now, a panicked recruitment drive is under way to replace some of the expertise that has been lost over the years. DEFRA is advertising for 25 new policy advisers on two-year contracts to help develop and deliver a post-Brexit food and farming policy. Among their tasks will be to scope and design a new farm support system and prepare ministers and officials to negotiate access to EU and world markets for UK food and drink. No pressure then.

You might assume such a job spec would require experienced individuals, but you’d be wrong: “Knowledge of food, farming, or animal and plant health issues is helpful but not essential,” states the job ad. So while the EU can call upon bureaucrats with years of experience of navigating the myriad complexities of the CAP and Common Fisheries Policy, the UK government is preparing to employ rank amateurs to do its bidding.

In the absence both of clear policy aims and subject matter expertise the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn at this stage is that the UK will have little option but to adopt the EU’s existing food and farming policy framework and regulations until we have the personnel and knowledge to develop our own distinct set of policies. This could take years and will be a hard political sell to ardent Brexiteers still energised by the idea of “taking back control” of our waters and scrapping farm subsidies.

And what of the numerous EU agencies that oversee everything from health claims to chemicals approvals? Is the government really prepared to invest in the infrastructure that would be required to take this work in-house?

Delivering a smooth Brexit was always going to be a fiercely challenging task from a food and farming perspective. That task now looks mountainous, and the Conservative Party has nobody to blame but itself.

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