Political Print: Is blue still the colour of the food industry?

The government’s tin-eared response to the pandemic and Brexit has left question marks over the Conservative’s long-term appeal to businesses, argues Nick Hughes.

There was a time not so long ago when the food supply chain was largely gilded in Conservative blue.

Farmers by and large have traditionally sworn their allegiance to Tory MPs who are consistently returned in rural constituencies in England and in turn go into bat for farming interests on contentious issues such as fox hunting and badger culling.

Further up the supply chain, the positioning of the Conservatives as the party of business has historically manifested itself in industry-friendly regulation in areas such as food reformulation, advertising and planning, along with low tax rates (UK corporation tax is among the lowest in Europe). And while there are emerging signals that some businesses would like the state to be more assertive in regulating supply chains, the light-touch approach pursued by previous Tory administrations has largely aligned with the priorities of big businesses and their representative bodies.

The current government, by contrast, appears hell bent on spending all the political capital it has accrued within the food business community in a matter of months. Farmers, manufacturers, retailers and hospitality businesses have all been left aggrieved and aghast by actions that threaten their future viability and make a mockery of the “party of business” mantra Conservative politicians hold so dear.

Let’s begin with farmers, who have seen a manifesto promise to maintain world leading UK food and environment standards in future trade deals repeatedly undermined in key parliamentary votes. NFU president Minette Batters declared “the future of British food and farming is at stake” after a large majority of Conservative MPs, whipped by the government, rejected an amendment to the Agriculture Bill which would have enshrined food standards in law thereby protecting domestic producers from the threat of cheap imports produced to lower standards.

Matters of trade are also exercising food manufacturers whose representatives are striking an increasingly exasperated tone at the government’s apparent willingness to impose billions of pounds in extra costs on businesses that trade with the EU. FDF chief executive Ian Wright highlighted the risk of “eye-watering tariffs” and “border delays and disruption” after the latest round of UK/EU talks once again ended in stalemate. “A no-deal outcome is bad for food and drink businesses, bad for food security, and bad for every household in Great Britain,” said Wright.

Retail leaders said they too were “deeply concerned” by suggestions from the prime minister that UK businesses should prepare themselves for a no deal exit. “There is nothing retailers can do to insulate consumers from the impact of £3bn of new tariffs on food in our supermarkets,” said British Retail Consortium chief executive Helen Dickinson.

As for foodservice and hospitality businesses, they would have every right to be the most irate of all business groups: this is a government that – despite offering a bespoke package of support – is still perceived by many businesses to have failed the sector in its response to coronavirus. The 10pm curfew imposed on restaurants and bars, despite limited evidence that it suppresses infection rates, has been a source of great frustration among business owners. A subsequent financial support scheme was initially dismissed as inadequate and although an improved package went some way to softening the industry’s ire many operators believed it would not be sufficient to prevent a raft of business failures.

Now, in light of the latest set of restrictions announced on Saturday, pubs and restaurants will be forced to cease trading again for a period of a month with the exception of those serving takeaway food (alcoholic drink sales are not permitted in a further blow to finances). The furlough scheme has been extended until the end of November but that will be of little comfort to businesses living a hand-to-mouth existence whose ability to generate vital revenue in the run up to Christmas has been severely restricted. “It is critical that businesses are given a lifeline to survive the winter, before being given the support to enter a revival phase in 2021, as the nation’s prospects improve,” said UKHospitality chief executive, Kate Nicholls.

And what of those businesses supplying the foodservice sector? Wholesalers and distributors are the forgotten tribe of the pandemic. Stripped of a huge chunk of their income but denied the kind of direct support afforded to pubs and restaurants, businesses are now urging the government to step in and secure their future. “The thing that’s galling for us is that the wholesale sector and supply chains in general have had no sector-specific support,” Bidfood chief executive Andrew Selley told The Guardian.

With businesses near universally on its case, the government has taken the bizarre step of picking a fresh fight – this time with members of the public. Its insistence in facing down campaigners’ demands to provide free school meals to children during half-term is perhaps the most self-destructive decision of them all. The measure would cost a pittance (the equivalent of half a day of the ‘eat out to help out’ subsidy scheme that scored a rare political victory for the government over the summer) but its symbolic value at a time when Boris Johnson’s government is purporting to “put our arms around the people of this country” is immeasurable. Whatever the politics, the very real prospect of children going without food is first and foremost a human tragedy but it’s also a terrible narrative for a government in a developed western economy to have to challenge.

Businesses quickly stepped in to fill the void left by politicians. Restaurants that offered to provide free meals to disadvantaged children, despite flirting with their own financial ruin, no doubt did so primarily out of a sense of social responsibility to the communities they serve. But who could blame them if the schadenfreude of seeing the government cast as a Dickensian villain by comparison may have been a secondary motivation.

Whether lost faith in this government will have a long-term electoral impact remains to be seen. Few would argue the pandemic has been a hugely difficult act of political management; yet it’s a challenge the government has made harder by fighting unnecessary battles on numerous fronts.

Trust will take time to rebuild among previously sympathetic industry stakeholders, but Conservatives will believe it can be done – particularly in the event of a change in party management.

For those businesses that don’t survive, however, the scars will run deep. Meanwhile, a new generation of start-up businesses is emerging with sustainability and ethics at their core for whom blue blood may not run quite so naturally through their veins.

In a year of tremendous disruption to the status quo, the shifting political allegiance of the food industry is another intriguing dynamic that promises to shape the future of the country for years to come.

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