What difference will May make for the food industry as Britain heads for the EU exit?

If a week is a long time in politics the past six weeks must have felt like an eternity. Since the Print last went to press in June we have witnessed the resignation of a prime minister and the instatement of his successor; a civil war erupt within the Labour Party resulting in another leadership contest; and, sparking both of those, the small matter of the UK public voting to leave the European Union.

With the ramifications of Brexit set to take several years to untangle and the Labour leadership contest not reaching its climax until September, the most pressing political question for our sector is: what will a Theresa May-led government mean for food?

This is no straightforward question. May has forged a reputation in government not only as a safe pair of hands but as someone who keeps her own views close to her chest; “policy over ideology” has appeared to be the new prime minister’s mantra to date.

This could all change, of course, and indeed May’s early speeches have hinted at the sweeping vision for Britain that could define her time in office.

Notably for businesses, she has already pledged to tackle corporate irresponsibility and reform capitalism so that it works for everyone, not just the privileged few – remarkable words from a Conservative PM that could just as easily have come from the mouth of a Labour leader. Just how May intends to achieve this goal remains to be seen. She has spoken of employee representation on company boards as one specific policy proposal.

Her commitment to driving through the Modern Slavery Act as home secretary, meanwhile, suggests a May administration will not tolerate abuses of labour in the supply chain. On this point, the food industry should take note as a sector that has had some murky labour practices, involving seafood and fresh produce supply chains in particular, exposed in recent years.

Beyond this, however, evidence for where May stands on issues of food policy is thin on the ground. Could it be, therefore, that the clues to May’s priorities for food and the environment lie in her choice of secretaries of state?

Greg Clark, who will lead the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), is known as a disciple of the climate change cause, which gives hope that climate policy will be embedded in BEIS’s work rather than sidelined as some environmentalists fear.

Jeremy Hunt has held on to the health portfolio, but seems no closer to publishing his department’s long-awaited childhood obesity strategy. Rumours abound that one of May’s first acts as PM will be to delay or reverse the sugar tax under pressure from some quarters of the food industry – hardly the actions of a woman who wants to reform capitalism.

And then there is Andrea Leadsom at DEFRA. We know from her prominence in the leave campaign that Leadsom will throw her weight behind efforts to secure new free trade deals for the UK. We also know she wants restrictions on the number of immigrants coming into the country. Both positions will present challenges in her new role.

While there is significant support among farmers for Britain to be released from EU rules on agriculture, and enthusiasm for the export opportunities that free-trade deals may bring, there is also concern that competing on the global stage, adrift from the safety net of EU subsidies, brings risks for UK food and farming.

One need only look at the crisis in the dairy industry – where just months ago farmers were marching on Brussels to demand measures to ease cash flow difficulties – to understand how delicate such negotiations will be.

Environmental groups feel they have been sidelined in the ministerial rush to reassure nervous business leaders over the effect of Brexit

Leadsom has spent her early weeks shaking the hands of industry bigwigs and promising to build a great future for British food. Such posturing is obligatory for someone in her position, but Leadsom should not forget that she is in charge of a department responsible for the environment as well as for food and rural affairs.

There is a feeling among environmental groups that they have been sidelined in the ministerial rush to reassure nervous business leaders over the effect
of Brexit. Leadsom will surely be aware that a thriving food industry relies on a thriving natural environment and NGOs will be pressing strongly for signs of coherence between DEFRA’s plans for the environment and for food and farming.

Leadsom would also be well advised to work closely with colleagues in the Home Office and the new Department for Exiting the European Union to formulate a coherent plan for reducing immigration – if that is indeed the aim – while ensuring a sustainable long-term solution for access to agricultural labour in the UK. Tough talk on immigration is all very well in a referendum debate; it’s not so easy a message to deliver to farmers reliant on migrant workers.

The immediate post-referendum fallout has started to subside now that a new government is fully formed, but the long-term political upheaval has only just begun. Food policy in the May era is about to get very interesting.

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