BREXIT HAPPENED in 2016 because 1.27 million more people voted to leave the EU than remain.

That was a margin of around 3%, but democracy means winner takes all. Ironically the margin that decided the relationship future generations will have with the EU is just about the same as the number that signed the petition calling for UK standards to be applied to food imports.

A big difference now is that, while in the referendum a slim majority was deemed by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, the leaders of the Leave campaign, as democracy in action, they are silent about food standards.

All credit has to go to the farming lobby for mobilising support. They persuaded an impressive one million plus to sign the petition in just two weeks. This is despite evidence that signing petitions does little to change political decisions. That is all the more so when a government at Westminster is sitting happily with a massive majority. As well as the petition, 78,000 people have written to their MPs asking them to support the case for a Trade, Food and Farming Standards Commission to ensure food imports do not undermine standards.

This would lack the teeth of legislation and it is still regrettable MPs fell for false threats and even more false promises when they were persuaded not to support the Neil Parish amendment to the Agriculture Bill. However a Commission would reflect the Otto Bismark quote that politics is that 'art of the possible', which he defined as the art of the second best, or the attainable. Legislation is not possible from a government seemingly ready to allow itself to be blackmailed by the Trump administration over food standards, but a Commission with real teeth and an ability to mobilise public opinion could be an effective second best.

It is encouraging this issue united all the UK farm unions. Brexit has undermined that unity, largely because there is no longer a common goal to be pursued. In the days as an EU member, the farm unions got what they wanted by working together to convince the government not to reject ideas emerging in Brussels. Now we will have different support regimes in the different regions of the UK, with the pot of money set by the Treasury in London. The English approach is to focus on green ideas and green solutions, with a support scheme rewarding farmers for the delivery of public goods. The other regions, within reason, will do what suits them best. That is a good outcome, but a race to out-green the CAP is only superficially attractive and the farming lobby needs to remember that.

As to the Commission it is an idea that looks good on paper, but how it would work is more difficult. It is an easy ask that products and practices banned in the UK should also be banned so far as imports are concerned. The often-quoted examples are hormone treated beef, other growth promoters in livestock and chlorine washed chicken. It is when the argument moves beyond these headline grabbers that it becomes much more difficult. The petition talks about animal welfare and environmental conditions needing to be the same for imported food – a concept often described in trade negotiations as equivalence.

These are however often subjective issues and as such more difficult to measure and police as part of any trade deal, be that with the United States, Brazil or anywhere else. If we seek to pit our animal welfare standards against others, it becomes a difficult argument because it will attract to the debate those who simply oppose all livestock farming.

In exposing shortcomings elsewhere we risk exposing what are deemed problems in the UK. The same applies to the environment and to labour or social welfare conditions. The Covid outbreaks in abattoirs across Europe, including the UK, certainly raise unwelcome questions in this area. Issues will also be raised about, for example, whether traditional British cattle breeds grazing extensively in Brazil genuinely represent lower environmental standards than those in the UK.

Subjective issues are all about perception and this is why they are difficult to police via legislation. This does not mean the Commission is a bad idea. It is not, but after MPs failed farmers over the Parish amendment we must not lose sight of the fact that it could only ever be the 'art of the second best' compared to proper legislation.