Why Brexit could end up costing the Tories their rural vote

Unless he can turn things round in normally solid farming areas, Boris Johnson’s MPs may send their former thoroughbred to the knacker’s yard

Paul WaughChief Political Commentator inews.co.uk 

“Our farmers, who art in Devon, hallowed be thy name.” Ahead of their apparently daunting task in the Tiverton and Honiton by-election, that was my guess of what a Lib Dem Lord’s Prayer would sound like.

In the end, it was Boris Johnson who faced a Devon retribution for his twin sins of Partygate and appearing out of touch over the cost of living crisis.

After overturning a whopping 24,000 Tory majority, new Tiverton MP Richard Foord was this week sworn in, with Lib Dem leader Ed Davey at his side.

Tory MPs had jeered Davey in Prime Minister’s Questions earlier this month when he called for the extension of the rural fuel duty relief scheme to areas like “Cumbria, Shropshire and Devon”.

Conservatives knew the choice of geography was hardly coincidental, given the Lib Dems have held a seat in Cumbria since 2005, won a by-election in Shropshire last year and were campaigning hard to win another in the West Country.

But with Davey and his party having the last laugh, several Tories are very nervous indeed that their countryside core vote risks crumbling before their eyes. Some even worry that Johnson has spent more time trying to hold onto “Red Wall” urban seats at the expense of rural areas.

That tension is highlighted in the post-Brexit trade deals the Government is signing, with the UK-Australia deal in particular coming in for criticism. Although ministers insist the deal will boost British exports of cars and fashion, the Government’s own impact assessment revealed the deal will cost farmers and food producers almost £300 million due to Australian imports.

Today, the Commons International Trade Committee published a report which was scathing about ministers’ attempts to “rush” through Parliament the deal without sufficient scrutiny of its impact on issues like British animal welfare and agriculture.

When International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan decided at the last minute to back out of a session with the committee to discuss its report, chairman Angus Brendan MacNeil “empty chaired” her. With the notable backing of the five Tory MPs on the committee, they held a one-minute session simply to embarrass her for her absence. Trevelyan’s reason for cancelling her appearance, to announce the UK’s extension of steel tariffs, may have seemed to some yet another example of “Red Wall” concerns dominating once more.

The row also laid bare the relative lack of scrutiny over trade deals since Brexit. The UK Parliament now has less power to interrogate new international trade agreements and treaties than the European Parliament does (the long process of approving the Brexit trade deal was an anomaly). The Australian Parliament has more of a say over both the trade deal and the new AUKUS security pact than Westminster does.

However, there is a wider problem with the Prime Minister’s bare-bones Brexit deal and its impact on rural areas. Farmers were promised that EU subsidies would be replaced in full, but they are being gradually phased out, with basic payments being cut by 20 per cent this year.

There is also anger over Jacob Rees-Mogg’s decision to again postpone post-Brexit import checks on food imports from the EU. The National Farmers Union said the move left British farmers at an unfair disadvantage and posed a risk to the nation’s biosecurity, animal health and food safety.

Although Environment Secretary George Eustice, himself a farmer, has tried to offer reassurances about protecting farmers in trade deals (and is a big backer of Brexit freedoms to boost “gene-edited” crops), he’s also had to battle with complaints that leaving the EU has hit agricultural worker employment.

Before Brexit, under the now defunct Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Scheme, about 60,000 to 70,000 seasonal farmworkers, mainly sourced from Bulgaria and Romania, would travel to the UK to work on farms.

The politics feel ominous too. Johnson sounded acutely aware of the problem when he recently accused the Lib Dems of going “around the country bamboozling rural communities”. The party has made council gains in its traditional West Country battleground and is also targeting Shropshire, Kent, North Yorkshire, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Buckinghamshire. Rural voters who used to think they’ve nowhere else to go now see they can boot out their local MP.

There’s the risk of a pincer movement too from Labour. Back in 1997 when Blair won his landslide, Labour took an astonishing 170 seats in rural areas (compared to just 17 in 2019). A poll in April put Labour nearly neck and neck with the Conservatives among rural voters (36 per cent to the Tories’ 38 per cent).

Perhaps the biggest worry for the Tories is that the Prime Minister himself is the lightning rod for anger over the cost of living, over standards in public life and over worries that his oven-ready Brexit deal has turned out to be half-baked.

Johnson spent just one campaign day in Tiverton (including on a farm), but he failed to conduct a walkabout that would mean encountering members of the public in front of the cameras. His big asset in 2019 was that he could refresh the parts Tories couldn’t normally reach.

Now, from being booed by Royalist crowds at the Platinum Jubilee to shedding votes in normally solid farming areas, we seem to be witnessing a “reverse Heineken” effect, where he toxifies the parts of the electorate the Tories never normally lose. Unless he can quickly turn things round, his MPs may send their former thoroughbred to the knacker’s yard.

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