CAP debate cracks the whipless nine

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Indy Politics
Working his passage back into the Tory fold in last night's Commons votes on European farm policy, the whipless Nicholas Budgen declared the time for a backbencher to be a nuisance was when his party was doing well and arrogant with success.

"Now my former party is doing badly, this seems a very proper time for me to come to the aid of my former colleagues," Mr Budgen, MP for Wolverhampton SW, told the House.

He duly helped the Government to comfortable majorities at the close of a debate in which the real issue was not so much reform of the Common Agricultural Policy as the reform and rehabilitation of the nine whipless Tories. In the event only Mr Budgen went the whole hog and voted with the Government in both divisions.

The motion, endorsing the Government's stance in farm price negotiations for 1995-96, was carried by 298 votes to 277 and a Labour amendment, calling for "fundamental changes to an unacceptable policy", rejected by 305 votes to 278.

Fending off the barbs of the sceptics, William Waldegrave, the Minister for Agriculture, said the slogan "repatriate the CAP" would not help Britain.

The minister was hardly into his gentleman farmer's stride before Michael Spicer suggested his call for freer trade and less subsidies was an argument "not so much for reforming the CAP as for its abolition".

Mr Spicer, MP for Worcestershire South, is a Tory who despite his unabashed Euroscepticism has been cautious enough to retain the party whip.

Not so Tony Marlow. The whipless member for Northampton North, said the CAP ripped off the housewife, plundered the taxpayer and discriminated against the British farmer. "Any red-blooded British government would get out of it and get out of it now."

Britain contributed £3bn net to the European budget each year, two-thirds of it for agriculture, Mr Marlow said. "That money, instead of going to the Mafia in Italy or to low-grade and fraudulent Greek tobacco producers, could be used for our own people in our own country.

"The only sensible policy, for Europe as well as for Britain, is to repatriate agricultural policy."

Though much hung on the vote, the debate was thinly attended. Mr Waldegrave resorted once again to his supertanker metaphor, telling MPs that the great vessel of the CAP was starting to turn.

The mechanisms under the 1992 reforms were far from perfect but had already cut the cost of the CAP by £8bn, he said.

"We believe that British farmers could do an even better job for the consumer, and for the British food and drink industry which uses their raw materials, if they could compete more freely in a world where there were less subsidies, less constraints on production and trade, and more freedom for enterprise and efficiency to be rewarded."

This meant a radical change in attitudes to agricultural trade not just in Europe, but in the US, Japan and many other countries too.

But Mr Waldegrave said the slogan "repatriate the CAP" would not help. "We cannot accept a situation where British farmers have to face subsidies for production elsewhere in Europe or America which they do not get at home, while free trade dismantles any protection for their goods.

"That is why we need a continuing CAP - with more not less rigorous action to rule out illegal state aids - a CAP which matches the single market with a single, simpler, cheaper, regime of support - a support incidentally increasingly focused not on production aid but on environmental gains."

Gavin Strang, Labour's agriculture spokesman, welcomed the rise in farm incomes but said this was due to the "debacle" of Black Wednesday - and not any policies pursued by the Government.

Contrary to Mr Waldegrave's assertion, spending on the CAP was still "racheting up year in, year out". It had risen by 180 per cent since 1979, Mr Strang claimed - to angry denials from the minister - and would amount to £30bn this year. "Intervention buying and export subsidies should go," he said.

Mr Budgen confessed he was going to vote with his "former party" for "openly political reasons". To jeers from Opposition MPs, he said: "Yes, I do want to be reselected and I also wish to be re-elected. I intend to vote the party line tonight. But I wish to make it absolutely plain that I still regard the CAP as being a very high price for our membership of the free trade area."

Another whipless Tory, Christopher Gill, MP for Ludlow, condemned the CAP as "insanity" and incapable of sensible reform. "If the Conservative Party accords greater importance to the institutions of the EU than to the interests of its natural supporters in the food and farming industry, then it will get its just desserts."

He claimed the subsidy regime was "socialist" because quantity, standards and price were determined centrally. "More and more people have concluded that if they have got to have socialism, they would rather have it from socialists than from Conservatives."