Michael is our new Best Friend. Michael promises us all manner of goodies. A new British Agriculture Policy which promises to sweep away all the bad things of that nasty European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – and nasty things there certainly are a plenty. Michael promises to create a new progressive farm policy which rewards farmers for delivering “goods” like healthy soil, planting trees and so on. Michael has apparently taken personal control of producing the new 25 year Environment Plan, which we are promised will be much more intelligent and witty than Andrea Leadsom’s paper and crayons version which never saw the light of day. And, just last week, with a conspiratorial nod and a wink, Michael’s Friend Oliver told Parliament that Michael wanted to fill the “governance gap” created when the UK loses the European Court’s role as final arbiter of environmental law in the UK, and create a new Regulator, with teeth, which will hold the Government to account if it fails to meet the standards set.
Ever since Michael took over at Defra he has been marching to this tune – he was the “shy Green”, now fully revealed having come out of the… compost heap? He waves his environmental credentials in the face of vested interests like the National Farmers Union. He sticks it to the Fox-man, rejecting the idea that we will learn to love chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-induced Beef or GM crops. his most important speech so far was to a bunch of greenies at WWF.
Michael is worried about our soil – “if you drench the soil in chemicals… you are cutting away the ground beneath your feet.” Michael has pledged to reinstate the Ivory ban, ban neonicotinoids, release Beavers in the Forest of Dean; and introduce CCTV into slaughterhouses. In other words, he has cleared the in-tray of things that his predecessors and underlings were either lobbied into putting off, intrinsically opposed to, or just too useless to do anything about.
What’s going on? This is, after all, the same person who stabbed his best mate Boris Johnson in the front and back, then fell on his own stiletto during last year’s leadership campaign. This is Michael the Geek, who then played the populist card when he said “the people of this country have had enough of experts”. This is Michael the neo-con/neo-liberal ideologue, the Michael who likened the Good Friday Agreement to condoning paedophilia.
Will the Real Michael Gove please stand up.
It’s a mystery, worthy of the handle-bar moustached Hercule Poirot.
For what it’s worth, these are my thoughts on Michael Gove and his battle with the Truth.
I do actually think Gove genuinely has some beliefs in the importance of the environment. OK I’ve got that off my chest. From now on it’s politics.
Gove has invented the notion of a Green Brexit. This is of course post-hoc rationalisation. Almost all people who care about the environment saw Brexit as likely to be damaging to the UK’s environment, with a few notable exceptions. Yes many (including myself) were reluctant remainers, but then weighing up the pros and cons of an action or a policy is bread and butter to anyone interested in the environment and human impacts on it. So why invent Green Brexit? In one word, Momentum.
Gove is aware that the Tory party has lost the votes of most people in this country under the age of about 40. Tory voters are getting older, and to be blunt, dying. Meanwhile, the Environment continues to be at least in the top five issues that voters under 40 are most concerned about. How to get younger voters to think about voting Tory again? Start playing up your environmental credentials. For Gove personally, Green Brexit is akin to Ed Balls dancing on Strictly – it’s all about public rehabilitation – perhaps even a bit of penance.
It’s also a wise move for Gove to cosy up to the Environmental Movement, which, if you include the National Trust, covers roughly 10% of the population – and an influential 10%. Now of course there’s a big difference between Tory voting NT members who mainly like visiting gardens and getting free car-parking at beauty spots; and activist anti-frackers. But when it comes to neutralising their considerable abilities in, for example, the Houses of Parliament, then they are best seen as one movement.
Offering them a new strong watchdog for the Environment, a new National Policy Statement for the Environment, and powers to hold the Government to account should it stray from that NPS, have all been laid out by Sir Oliver Letwin last week (see the debate here). These are apparently to be a replacement for the Precautionary Principle, the Polluter Pays Principle; and the powers of the European Court of Justice to impose massive fines on UK Government for failing to apply the EU’s environmental law. And while I personally think they are in no way a replacement, these might be just enough of an incentive to reduce the pressure on back-bench MPs from the environmental lobby. I have to say, the idea that this Government would create a strong environmental regulator, when they have been so busy emasculating or abolishing the environmental regulators that already exist, is absurd (bonfire of the quangos anyone?). But that’s just me.
And who doesnt like seeing an old vested interest group getting a proverbial kicking? Gove, after all, has form here. Remember the zeal in which he and his Grima-wormtongue advisor Dominic Cummings (self-proclaimed architect of the Brexit victory) took on “the blob”, the name he used to vilify the teaching profession, when at the Department for Education. Interestingly he didn’t invent “the blob”. That came from his friends at the neo-liberal Center for Education Reform, as did the Free School nonsense. And while former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson (blogs passim ad nauseam) took that language and applied it as the “green blob” to environmental groups, Gove understood who the real vested interests are in Defra – the NFU. “Fat cat farmers living it up on the EU-funded gravy train” as the Daily Express might put it – are such an easy target.
It has been entertaining to see the NFU suddenly unsighted, presented with a Defra Secretary of State with no farming connections, no country-landowning background; and no natural empathy for the plight of the landed and subsidised. Far from it. Gove’s background is places like Policy Exchange, who would merrily sweep away all public support for farmers. So Gove is happy to see the NFU fume that they are not getting the access to which they are entitled. NFU President Meurig Raymond has decided to step down early, to spend more time with his cows, no doubt. Is this a sign of the frustration building within the fabled Union? How they must wish they still had Peter Kendall with all his political guile, at this critical time.
Gove knows though that his plans for a leaner smarter (and cheaper) British agricultural polict could be scuppered by back woodsmen on the benches of the Commons and more importantly the Lords. Because plenty take the farm subsidies the EU has generously channelled to them, whether they be landed nobility with thousands of hectares, or Yeomen farmer stock. And they will not give it up without a fight.
So expect to see a few fish thrown to these seals. Gove is going big on soils; and his wingman George Eustice has already started dropping hints that the new “public goods for public money” approach will be through an Agri-Environment Scheme available to all. You could call it ELS-lite. Given Gove’s enthusiasm for zero-till, for example, ELS-lite might provide public goods payments for zero-till farming, by default. This would also explain why he has repeatedly supported the re-licensing of glyphosate, an essential tool in the zero-tillers box.
Finally, there is of course a bigger story, about Michael’s future. Is Gove auditioning for the Chancellor’s job? Has he shown, with all these good works at Defra, that he really has seen the error of his ways and is now on his best behaviour? If spreadshit Phil does get the sack after the budget on wednesday and Damian Green is finally forced to resign, a bigger reshuffle (never far away these days) looms. Gove must be hoping to catch the Prime Minister’s eye, or twist her wrist a bit further behind her back, depending on whether she’s in charge or a hostage to Gove and Johnson. In which case all of Gove’s good words will have turned out to be, just words.