Cameron speaking at Food is GREAT

Cameron speaking at a Food is GREAT event at Number 10

With 43 days to go, the Brexit debate remains as entertaining as ever.

For food & drink the week peaked yesterday, when David Cameron invited suppliers to set up stall in Number 10. And for the most part, he was among vocal supporters.

“We are Europeans, so why are we turning our back on our friends?” said one producer, an emotive summing up of arguably the biggest concern of everyone in the room – the potential overnight loss of 500 million customers.

“We have a customer in Russia,” said another. “Our product has to go across six EU states. The joy of being able to fill out one form and travel through six states without holdups or duty is fantastic. It might be a selfish reason, but from a business perspective it makes life easy.”

A meat producer added: “We’ve got free trade, no tariffs and open borders. Some 90% of Welsh lamb goes to Europe. Welsh farming is under pressure and a lot of farmers are reliant on the subsidies the get from the EU. What worries them is the unknown. And if we come out of Europe, where does that income come from? Yes we need to look at emerging markets, but at the moment Europe is a prime destination for what we do. And no-one is really saying what the alternative is. If we vote to leave does that mean import tariffs of 5% to get into Europe? We certainly don’t want that. So there has to be a clearer message on what happens if we do leave.”

And does he think we might?

“It’s really difficult. If you’d have asked me three months ago, I’d have said we are staying in. But now I think it will be a lot closer.”

But not everyone in the room was quite so on message and supportive of Cameron’s pro-EU stance.

“It’s not going to be catastrophic,” said one producer on the prospect of Brexit. “But it will set us back. Why would six EU states open their borders to us and say, ‘Oh, come on through, we won’t worry about what’s inside’? There will be a reaction. They will say: ‘You wanted to leave, so if you’re not prepared to pay into the pot we won’t give you any benefits. So I’m sceptical about us being able to export as easily as we can. But it’s not going to be a disaster.”

And a couple of the larger producers in the room would not be drawn, even off the record. “I’m neutral, I can’t comment,” said one. “We export, we have exported and we will continue to export. And we want to remain neutral.”

However, there was no such ambiguity from environment secretary Liz Truss.

“At the moment we have a stable position, we have access to this market and we are getting better and better at exporting our food,” she told The Grocer. “And it seems a massive shame to throw that away for no reason whatsoever”.

And in a short speech introducing the PM, she reminded everyone that food manufacturing is “our biggest industry, bigger than cars and aerospace put together. And we’ve got the brilliant farmers as well. What I want to see is the Union Jack on the pack going further and further afield and dominating those markets.”

Then it was Cameron’s turn, fresh from PMQs and cracking a couple of jokes about Corbyn and anti-corruption. But the main thrust of his speech was on the importance of remaining part of the EU.

“The real purpose of today is not just to celebrate British food and farming but to talk about this great opportunity we have of staying in a reformed European Union of 500 million customers, and to talk very frankly about the threat if we leave. Those who want us to leave say we would still be able to trade with EU countries in a way, after a deal is done, and all the rest of it. But they are totally uncertain about what they want. They haven’t thought it through. There is a real threat to this great British industry. And to me it falls into three different parts.”

“The first is the vital issue of protected name status. This was hard fought and hard won and it represents a massive marketing advantage to selling in the UK and Europe, and that’s besides trade deals around the world. If we were to leave the EU we could lose those protected name statuses and that could do real damage.”

“Second is this issue of not having tariffs or quotas. It is a remarkable thing, this market of 500 million people, whether you sell lamb or beer, without any quotas or tariffs. It’s vital for this industry that we maintain that market.”

“The third threat comes from all the non-tariff barriers and rules and regulations that people don’t automatically understand. Just as one example, we now have some of the cleanest beef anywhere in the world. Yet today we are still unable to sell British beef or British lamb into the United States, even though it’s one of our oldest friends and partners, because you can’t take them to court in the same way you can take the French to court if they ban British beef, or the Italians to court if they played up about British cheese.”

“The one plea I want to make is that people are desperate to hear from trusted third parties. They are desperate to hear the facts and figures. They are desperate to hear real arguments and examples. And food is something we all understand. If Britain’s farmers and food producers can come out and explain, calmly and rationally, what market access means today and how bad it could be tomorrow if we are on WTO rules, or had an arrangement like America or Canada, people would sit up and listen.”

“So I would urge you to put your head above the parapet and make this argument. There is a great pride in British food and British produce. And I promise you that whatever happens in this referendum I will continue, and I know Liz will continue, to be the strongest advocates for British food and farming and try and open those markets the world over.”

“And we should start on 23 June by making sure we stay in a market of 500 million people where you can trade openly and freely. You should be really proud of what you’ve achieved so far. And even prouder once we have secured our place in this market after 23 June.”

Securing that place is likely. Bremain is an odds-on 4/11 across the bookies, while Brexit offers a relatively tempting 13/5. But the effort being put in on both sides means both camps understand it’s far from a certainty. And there are still 43 days of campaigning to go.