No-deal Brexit: Boris Johnson urged to stop ‘playing Russian roulette’ with farming industry

Prime minister visiting Wales as part of a tour of the nations of the UK 

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Tuesday 30 July 2019 13:01 BST
Boris Johnson booed in Scotland as he arrives for Nicola Sturgeon meeting

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Boris Johnson has been urged to “stop playing Russian roulette” with the Welsh sheep industry amid warnings of mass slaughter of livestock if no-deal Brexit goes ahead.

The prime minister promised to “back Britain’s great farmers” as he arrived for his first visit to Wales since taking office, due to include a meeting with first minister Mark Drakeford, who said no-deal would be “catastrophic” for the principality.

Helen Roberts of the National Sheep Association in Wales warned there would be protests – potentially involving farmers blocking roads with tractors – if Mr Johnson takes the UK out of the EU without an agreement to protect existing levels of trade.

Meanwhile, Alun Cairns, the secretary of state for Wales, was criticised for suggesting that exports to Japan could help make up for the expected collapse of lamb exports to the EU if World Trade Organisation tariffs of 40 per cent are imposed because of a no-deal Brexit.

The five-year deal signed with Japan in January this year envisages around £10m of lamb exports to the country annually, compared to nearly £400m worth of sales to EU27 nations. And Liam Fox, the former international trade secretary, informed MPs earlier this year that the separate EU-Japan free trade agreement which came into effect in February will not be rolled over for the UK after Brexit, but will form “the basis” for a possible future bilateral deal.

National Farmers’ Union (NFU) president Minette Batters warned that Welsh farmers would be “tariffed out of the EU market” if the UK leaves under WTO terms.

She said the mass slaughter of livestock was “absolutely something that we want to avoid at all costs”, but said this would require urgent government action, such as requiring public services to buy British food products.

“The bottom line is we’re exporting 40 per cent of our sheep production, we are the second largest producer of sheep meat in the world, so if we are … Tariffed out of the EU market, where does that 40 per cent go?” Ms Batters told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

“Trade deals don’t just get picked off the shelf in a couple of months, so there has to be a short-term measure to deal with the 40 per cent of lamb.”

Ms Roberts said it would be “absolutely catastrophic” to leave with no deal and suggested that the government should be preparing to provide facilities for meat rendered unsellable by Brexit to be frozen and stored until new markets open.

“I’d want [Mr Johnson] to stop playing Russian roulette with the industry,” she told Today.

Asked about civil unrest among farmers such as tractors being used to block roads, she said: “I think they will. It is time to stand up for ourselves ... I suspect there will be protests.”

Alun Cairns
Alun Cairns (EPA)

But speaking during a visit to a poultry farm, Mr Johnson insisted that farmers would benefit from leaving the EU’s common agricultural policy and by the UK signing new trade deals.

He said: “We’ll make sure [farmers] have the support they need. If their markets are going to be tricky, then we will help them to find new markets. We have interventions that are aimed to support their incomes.”

The prime minister was at the centre of a row after his team refused to allow Welsh broadcasters to record Mr Johnson’s answers to their questions.

ITV News’ political editor, Adrian Masters, wrote on Twitter: “I do think it’s a strange way to begin for a new prime minister who says he wants to strengthen the union to treat the main national news outlets this way.”

Earlier, Mr Cairns said the UK was focusing on new markets across the world outside of the EU.

He told Today: “We are now looking to the growth that will come from right around the world, 90 per cent of global growth will come from outside of the EU, but we don’t want to close our back on the European market either and that’s why working hard to get a deal is important, but of course there needs to be a shift in attitude and a positive response to the cause that we’re making.”

Asked what other markets would be available to farmers by Mr Johnson’s 31 October Brexit target date, Mr Cairns said: “I would point to the market in Japan that has just been opened to Welsh and British sheep. Now that is a new market for us, so exports are already taking place there, but that is a significant market for which we haven’t even scratched the surface yet.”

Plaid Cymru Westminster leader Liz Saville Roberts responded on Twitter: “So... no new markets by autumn 2019 for Welsh lamb (peak season when 800,000 lambs are sent to sale) Fantasy future trade deals for Welsh lamb.”

She issued a challenge to Mr Cairns to come to the Bala Mart livestock market in Snowdonia on Brexit day to explain the government’s plans.

And Tonia Antoniazzi, Labour MP for the Gower in south Wales, asked the Wales secretary: “Why haven’t you ruled out leaving with no deal Alun? If you actually cared about Welsh farmers, why are you even considering a no-deal Brexit which would wipe out Welsh agriculture?”

Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford warned no-deal Brexit would be “catastrophic”
Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford warned no-deal Brexit would be “catastrophic” (PA)

Speaking ahead of his visit – part of a tour of the four nations of the UK – Mr Johnson said: “I will always back Britain’s great farmers and as we leave the EU we need to make sure that Brexit works for them.

“That means scrapping the common agricultural policy and signing new trade deals – our amazing food and farming sector will be ready and waiting to continue selling ever more, not just here but around the world.

“Once we leave the EU on October 31, we will have a historic opportunity to introduce new schemes to support farming – and we will make sure that farmers get a better deal.

“Brexit presents enormous opportunities for our country and it’s time we looked to the future with pride and optimism.”

But Mr Drakeford said: “My main message to the PM remains the same: he has no public mandate for a no-deal Brexit, which would be catastrophic for Wales.

“If the UK does leave the EU, the UK government must work in close partnership with the Welsh government to mitigate negative effects on Wales and its economy.”

Mr Johnson was booed by anti-Brexit and pro-independence campaigners during a visit to Scotland on Monday.

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