Prime minister Rishi Sunak attends Farm to Fork Summit - Simon Dawson  No 10 Downing Street

Source: Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

Prime minister Rishi Sunak attends Farm to Fork Summit

One of the most frequently overlooked tools in the government armoury is its convening power. John Major, newly installed as Margaret Thatcher’s successor, was asked by his diary secretary who he might like to invite to one of the regular ‘great and good’ lunches PMs hosted.

“Well,” he said, “I’d like to meet Ian Botham but he’d never come.” “Believe me, prime minister,” said the official, “you ask him, he’ll come.” He did.

The fact is that – unless you have a pressing engagement with the Dalai Lama that day – an invitation to 10 Downing Street is almost impossible to decline. Even when it’s from a government facing choppy water, the allure of the walk up Downing Street and going through the world’s most famous front door is irresistible.

So it was no surprise this week’s ‘farm to fork’ summit drew – your correspondent excepted – an A-list cast of the high command of the UK food and drink industry. We gathered in the No 10 garden for a pre-summit showcase of British food and agriculture.

The sun shone, and even as the more cynical old industry salts murmured of their very low expectations for the event, they were impressed as they found themselves in conversation with half the members of the cabinet, who joined the gathering after its weekly meeting.

Elsewhere, my colleagues at The Grocer were reporting the event and its outcomes fully. The pre-match ballyhoo suggested it was an opportunity to beat up supermarket bosses on food prices – that was never going to happen. Having a bunch of senior executives from competing businesses in the same room talking about price would have been completely illegal. I very much doubt that was ever the point of the summit as far as No 10 was concerned.

At its heart, this summit was designed to press the reset button on the relationship between government and farmers and – to an extent – the wider food and drink industry. Over recent years, the NFU’s Minette Batters has become an extremely cogent and highly impactful, often critical observer of government policy on food and farming. The last thing No 10 needs is for its relationship with her and her members to be toxic in the run-up to the next election.

So the prime minister’s well-judged opening speech was short and designed to restore amity and a spirit of partnership to that relationship. He also offered some welcome deliverables.

The subsequent four breakout groups were set up to ensure every attendee could see that ministers, Defra civil servants and No 10 political advisers were listening to their views on supply chain resilience, sustainability, food security and exports. I will be very surprised if coming weeks don’t see a co-ordinated series of policy tweaks suggested in those sessions.

While its political fortunes remain seriously fragile, Sunak has restored simple dignity to the business of government. He’s ditched the drama. Perhaps most importantly, he has brought back the art of high-quality political management. This week’s summit was really about setting the conditions in which the government’s relationship with a potentially crucial group of supporters can be repaired.

There’s a very long way to go and time is very short, but you have to admire the PM for taking the trouble to try.