Recently more than 20 Conservative MP’s, including the Chancellor, by accident we are told, rebelled on an amendment to the Agriculture Bill to protect food standards. It does underline unease across the Commons, and even in the Cabinet, about the risk from cheap imports of foodstuffs once we’ve left the EU. The Government knew this problem was coming. Farmers, environmentalists and people who care about animal welfare as well as consumers warned that opening the floodgates to cheap imports of things like chlorinated chicken and hormone fed beef will mean lower food and welfare standards.
The Government’s problem is that maintaining high standards may prevent future trade deals. The US Agriculture Secretary has said the UK must learn to compete on a lower playing field, falling back on the old adage that if consumers won’t buy products then standards will rise, which is simply untrue.
Some call for agricultural products to be taken out of any US trade deal and parked for now. Good luck to any President trying to sell that to US farmers in election year. Others call for legislation to protect standards here and even a Commission to protect standards. Putting aside the irony of introducing a new bureaucracy and Commission to replace EU bureaucracy and a Commission, both run the risk of deterring deals and even placing the UK outside WTO rules. We learn the Prime Minister is sympathetic “to a degree” to calls for protection – which basically means he can’t decide because the choices are hard. But he can’t keep putting it off much longer.