POLITICS in Northern Ireland was once described as a battle a day, but events at Westminster over Brexit eclipse even that.

Politicians are proving every day the truth of the old adage that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. With fewer than 100 days to go until we are due to leave the EU, the Withdrawal Bill faces another mauling at Westminster. If that happens and it does not go through there will be demands for a Plan B. That will range from a Norway type deal to remain in the European Economic Area, through delaying Brexit, to there being no Brexit.

The no-deal option, which would devastate UK agriculture and much of the rest of the economy, is probably off the agenda. It could not win political support at Westminster, and pushing ahead with it would probably bring the government down. The cabinet must know this, despite spending billions on preparations for a no-deal outcome. That is part of a plan to get MPs to back the Withdrawal Agreement.

No matter what happens, January has to be the crunch point. If the commitment to leave the EU on March 29 is to stand, around January 21 is the last date for decisions to allow time to get legislation into place. One way or the other we are in the end game, even if the end is to delay the date. This is all far beyond anything farmers can hope to influence. But the one issue they need to make sure remains on the agenda is the future for support arrangements.

It is unacceptable that 18 months on from the referendum vote there is still no plan in place for support, or indeed how and whether these will be devolved to Scotland. Westminster is the log jam, thanks to the government's failure to have a realistic plan B in place.

It is easy to forecast how the support debate will go. There is already pressure to come up with a scheme that focusses on the environment rather than food production. That is inevitable. There will also be pressure for any scheme to be time-limited and based around a belief that support can eventually be reduced. The argument around support is that it is essential to ensure food security. However the error is that it is presented as a subsidy for farmers, which automatically makes it unpopular with taxpayers.

In reality, farm subsidies allow food to be sold on supermarket shelves at prices below the commercial cost of producing it. This is down to farmers being able to accept a lower price because of support and that applies as much in the United States and other countries as it does in the EU. Farmers need to resist any macho talk that the industry can exist at world prices with minimal support. That is not the case, but the suggestion would be seized upon by Westminster politicians.

The twist is that if farmers argue that subsidies cannot be reduced, because they support lower food prices, politicians will then argue that over this they have a plan B. That would be to allow food imports without punitive tariffs. At a stroke that would reduce food prices, make it easier to secure trade deals – and close us out of the EU-27 food market completely. This is a real threat and it is issue over which the farming lobby will have to box cleverly as the full detail of Brexit implementation unfolds.

The general Press imply that the EU is the source of farm subsidies and that this is a sound reason for Brexit. The truth however is very different, and farmers need to have the facts ready to counter these arguments. In 2017, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 51 of its member countries, including the EU as a bloc, plus ten developing countries, supported their agricultural industries.

The total was just under £500 billion and the OECD says the bulk of these payments distorted trade. The UK is not going to be able to opt out of this equation, and that message needs to be hammered home at every opportunity. The EU is on the list of sinners in terms of support as a percentage of farm income. But that is the family farm model reflected in the UK and it could not survive radical change to the support structure.