Source: Alamy

Boris Johnson has replaced Gove with Theresa Villiers

Food industry leaders are pinning their hopes on reshuffled Defra secretary Michael Gove to stave off disaster from a disorderly no-deal Brexit on 31 October.

Gove was this week made Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in prime minister Boris Johnson’s new Cabinet. In his new role, Gove has been charged with overseeing planning for a possible no-deal Brexit, with fewer than 100 days to go before the prospect of a Halloween departure from the EU.

His appointment was welcomed by senior food and drink figures, who said it was vital he helped prevent the UK being led into a hard Brexit disaster by the arrival of more hard-line Brexiters in the Cabinet.

These include the likes of new business secretary Andrea Leadsom, who replaces Greg Clark, and former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, the new foreign secretary, who replaces another of Johnson’s leadership rivals, Jeremy Hunt.

“Food and farming’s loss is the nation’s gain,” FDF chief executive Ian Wright told The Grocer. “While we are sad to lose such a visionary secretary of state, it is clear his new role leading the no-deal planning puts one of Cabinet’s strongest performers in arguably its most important job.”

A retail source added: “Michael Gove’s time at Defra will have given him important insights about the challenges that a no-deal Brexit presents to food supply chains.

“However, the restructuring of responsibility between the Cabinet Office and Defra means we run the risk of losing time in both no-deal preparations and the Brexit negotiations.

“Ultimately the only way of avoiding the nightmare scenario of no-deal is to make sure that we get a deal with the EU.”

The new PM this week repeated his warning the UK would walk away from Europe without a deal unless EU leaders agreed to re-write Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement. This was despite a series of industry leaders urging him to take a no-deal off the table, warning it risked “mortal damage” to the sector.

Instead, Johnson promised the government would ramp up its support for no-deal planning, with Gove given the task of leading the preparation.

It comes as Gove was this week replaced at Defra by hard-line Brexiter Theresa Villiers, the department’s sixth secretary since 2010.

She inherits programmes such as the National Food Strategy and the Food and Drink Sector Council, as well as initiatives including plans for a DRS system, the war on plastic and food waste.

With food and drink companies in the middle of preparing for Brexit, continuity at Defra was now crucial, Wright told MPs earlier this week.

“We simply can’t afford to spend the next three months explaining to a new set of ministers the crisis this industry is facing because of Brexit.”

Meanwhile, the NFU called on Villiers to launch a major impact assessment on the effect of Brexit on the farming sector. Phil Stocker, National Sheep Association chief executive, added: “We would have much preferred for Michael Gove to have remained as secretary of state. With Boris Johnson so new to the top job and Theresa Villiers taking on a brand new and very complex role at Defra, the absolute priority for both of them must be to ensure an orderly exit from the EU.”