Yesterday probably wasn’t the best day to reach out to Boris Johnson. With the prime minister knee deep in last-ditch manoeuvres to try and salvage his crumbling authority, the letter from M&S and 14 of its top suppliers seems unlikely to have hit his in-tray just yet.

If Johnson does get around to reading it, he’ll find proposals for a government-industry “partnership” that aims to “build a sustainable, resilient food sector for the long term”.

The proposals, co-ordinated by Stuart Machin, M&S COO and Food MD, focus primarily on tackling the food industry’s labour shortages. Among them are calls to invest in “innovation and productivity” for food production, build a national skills programme for “middle skills” such as HGV driving, and an urgent review by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) into the labour requirements for the food and farming sector.

They are all reasonable suggestions and shouldn’t be too politically abrasive for this current government either. Are they transformative? No. But worthy, nonetheless. Tackling labour shortages in the coming months and years will be a multi-threaded effort.

In some of Machin’s other proposals, however, pragmatism gives way to optimism. Multi-year visas for HGV drivers, for example: if the government didn’t acquiesce on this at the height of the crisis last year, it seems unlikely it will reverse that decision now.

Or in Northern Ireland, where M&S is calling for the use of “technology and common sense” to ensure frictionless trade on goods moving from Great Britain into the province. Machin argues that technology would reduce the need for the checks insisted on by the EU, to address the risk of goods moving on across the border into the Republic of Ireland. These checks will include those on export health certificates, which will need to be signed off by a vet for any product containing meat, eggs or dairy.


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Under M&S’s plans, retailers would open up their own systems, which track goods all the way from warehouses in Great Britain to stores in Northern Ireland, coupling this with sales and waste data so they could prove to EU officials that their goods never left Northern Ireland. The EU would then audit particular deliveries to give itself confidence that supermarket products really are staying in NI as claimed.

The plan has some pitfalls, though. Firstly, the similarity to the ‘risk-based approach’ the UK proposed last year is striking. The EU rubbished those plans as it would breach its ‘zero risk’ policy and jeopardise the EU’s rules on food safety. For all M&S’s claims that a ‘risk-based approach’ can build confidence, that remains a far cry from ‘zero-risk’.

M&S’s idea also does nothing to help smaller companies, which face the exact same issues. What about the small wholesalers moving a few pallets per week? Can they provide the level of data M&S is suggesting? Will the EU realistically audit every company of that ilk? Will it really be worth anyone’s while to do so or will those smaller companies simply conclude it’s not worth the effort and stop?

These sorts of issues have already been explored in depth and have led many to believe a veterinary agreement between the two sides is the only way to comprehensively solve the worst of the challenges in Northern Ireland.

There is a small glimmer of hope. The appointment of Liz Truss to the EU brief has reportedly triggered a marked improvement in mood between the two sides. The belligerence of her predecessor David Frost has seemingly subsided, replaced by a calculation that ‘getting Brexit done’ is preferable to ongoing conflict, according to Mujtaba Rahman, Europe director at Eurasia Group.

If any adequate resolution is to be found to the Northern Ireland protocol for UK food companies, both sides will have to make some concessions. A more hospitable relationship will be the first step in achieving that.