Downing Street officials distanced themselves from Lord Haskins, the Government's rural recovery co- ordinator, yesterday after furious farmers condemned his assertion that they rely too much on state aid.
Downing Street insisted that the peer, who is chairman of the food conglomerate Northern Foods, was "independent" and was not expressing the Prime Minister's views.
Lord Haskins, whose company had a turnover of £1.3bn last year, enraged farmers in a series of interviews over the weekend, predicting that half of Britain's farms would go out of business and urging them to adopt the "enterprising" attitude of their French counterparts.
He said half of farms would close by 2020 and dismissed as a "distortion" the Prince of Wales's claim that farm incomes now average just £100 a week. He also said the Prince, a vocal supporter of traditional and organic agriculture, was harking back to "some rural fantasy of the old days".
He told the BBC: "We have got a lot of lessons to learn from French agriculture. Small French farmers have been much more successful at surviving than British. They market much more extensively products that people really want. I wish we could get our farmers to be more enterprising and a little bit less reliant on the state when things go wrong."
Downing Street insisted yesterday that Lord Haskins was independent of Mr Blair. A spokeswoman said: "He is independent and has been appointed to look into the areas like Cumbria. He has got a long background in farming and thinks about things.
"We want to have an open debate on the future of farming and create a sustainable and competitive farming sector. He is going to have his views, others will have their views like Ben Gill, [of the National Farmers' Union] and we will listen to them all."
But Tim Yeo, the shadow Environment Secretary, said Lord Haskins' comments were "insensitive, unfounded and a sign not only of ignorance about the countryside but Labour's hatred of, and disregard for, the rural community".
Paul Tyler, a Liberal Democrat spokesman, said: "In the last two decades, he has been creaming off profits that should have gone to farmers. I find it an incredible cheek that he should be making the sort of comments he has been about some of the most hard-working people in the country."