Michael Gove

Gove was promoted to Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs by Theresa May in 2017

As Andrea Bocelli once sang, it’s ‘time to say goodbye’. As parliament is prorogued this week, almost a quarter of its MPs are – voluntarily – bidding farewell to the House of Commons. Of course, a further who-knows-how-many members will not survive sustained contact with the electorate, but it is those who have chosen to depart upon whom this column concentrates.

Three of them are former Defra secretaries of state, and so an appreciation of their collective tribute to the industry is merited.

Andrea Leadsom is perhaps the least appreciated. She was only in office for a few months, so her impact was really quite limited. Yet she represents one of the great ‘what ifs’ of recent political history. For a few days in July 2016 she was nearly prime minister. Second to Theresa May in the ballot to succeed David Cameron, opinion polls of Conservative members showed her beating May two to one in the ensuing vote.

But suddenly she pulled out and handed office to May on a plate. Quite why remains a bit of a mystery. Her stated reason was that she had secured only 84 MP votes, apparently far too few to lead the party effectively.

There had also been some controversy about her CV, which appeared to have been, shall we say, polished. There were also the comments she made about May’s lack of a family being a disadvantage to being prime minister. Whatever the reason, her relationship with May remained distinctly frosty – though, of course, in that she was part of a pretty large group.

Defra was her first Cabinet position. Civil servants speak of her quite warmly. She listened to advice, was constructive and courteous in meetings, and supported them in departmental arguments. In the chaotic May government that followed the 2017 election, her role as leader of the house was both difficult and fractious.

After May’s departure, she went on to be secretary of state for business. In a league table of secretaries of state in the 14 years of Conservative rule, I would place her ahead of Steve Barclay, Liz Truss, Theresa Villiers, Owen Paterson, Ranil Jayawardena, and Thérèse Coffey – respectable but not spectacular.

Andrea Leadsom at NFU Conference

Andrea Leadsom at the NFU Conference 2017

After the disastrous 2017 election, May surprised almost all onlookers by bringing back Michael Gove from exile. In fact, she could scarcely afford such a powerful and effective critic on her backbenches, as Truss later found out – having Gove outside the tent firing in could be terminal.

Leaving aside his controversial reputation, Gove is almost the most consequential politician to ever hold the Defra portfolio. Along with Michael Heseltine and Peter Mandelson, he is widely regarded as the most effective Cabinet minister of the last 40 years. Everywhere he has served, he has been a reformer of the structures of government and one of the Cabinet’s principal communicators.

I had the good fortune to observe Gove at very close quarters. His politeness is legendary. His cleverness is remarkable, but what is less known is his niceness. If you are prepared to engage with him, and accept he has very strong views with which you might very well disagree, it is a genuine pleasure to do business with him. He is stimulating, challenging and rewarding.

For the industry, his biggest contribution was to transform the reputation of Defra, from what one of its former secretaries of state called “a chocolate teapot department” into being one of the major economic ministries in Whitehall. Of course, many of us would argue food and farming should always have been in this position, but for a brief period it took Gove to deliver that role close to the centre of government.

George Eustice

George Eustice at the Dairy UK annual dinner 2016

During the prolonged pre-Brexit period, he was essential viewing. Indeed, it’s a matter of considerable regret to me that he was not still in Defra when the European negotiation reached its climax. I suspect had he been in that position, he would have had the clout and vision to ensure a much better negotiation than the one David Frost delivered. My guess is current difficulties would have been far less acute if Gove had remained in place.

But he didn’t. So I place him only second in my league table. Readers might be surprised that it is our third retiree – George Eustice – to whom I accord the top spot. This might be a surprise, given he is the quintessential journeyman politician – the longtime minister of state who made it to the Cabinet table. He is the arch-Brexiteer who had to deal endlessly with the complications of that flawed Frost deal and the pandemic.

It was an almost impossible job and it regularly landed him on the front pages – quite often for the wrong reasons. Yet, taking his cue from Gove, he was collaborative, constructive and straightforward. He was immensely hardworking and really rather engaging. Above all, he listened to the industry, bringing in Chris Tyas and creating the Food Resilience Industry Forum, which did so much to mitigate the daily conniptions caused by Brexit and Covid.

Eustice sought to represent the industry and resolve its problems. He was practical, not ideological, and – for the most part – he kept the food flowing. As he departs, he at least deserves a little credit for doing so.