THE GOVERNMENT in London has not done well in getting a grip on Brexit, coronavirus or the looming economic recession. What it does excel at is spinning a good story, and it has certainly done so over the new Trade and Agriculture Commission.

Time may prove me wrong – and I hope it does – but the more that emerges, the more it seems the government has spun its way out of justified criticism that in the pursuit of trade deals beyond the EU it will sacrifice UK food standards.

The government, in its press release announcing the body's membership, persuaded the farm lobby organisations to make positive comments. This could be a tactical error. They need to stick to their line that farming cannot be a casualty in the battle to secure trade deals. They also need to make clear that the EU-27 will, for the foreseeable future, remain the best market for UK food.

They need to make clear that as commission members they are not there to compromise or facilitate trade deals for the government. Their role is to oppose any moves that would open the UK to cheap imports. That will not be easy or popular, but it needs to be done to protect the industry.

Already the issues around this have dropped out of the headlines. The focus has moved solely to hormone treated beef and chlorine washed chicken. That these will be excluded from any trade deal with the US is inevitable. But achieving that is not a victory. These are issues where the US is ready to give ground. The members of the new commission must be ready to fight equally hard for other products and wider principles, despite the government's success in pushing food imports out of the headlines.

In the area of trade statistics the EU now recognises that the UK is no longer a member. Its trade figures, just released for the first quarter of the year, treat the UK as a third country for both imports and exports. In that time, EU trade in food with the rest of the world continued to boom, with sales up by 6%, while non-food EU exports fell by 20% because of the pandemic.

Food imports to the EU fell by 2%, meaning its positive balance of trade improved. For the UK, sales into the EU-27 fell by 11%, but sales from the EU into Britain only fell by 8%. This is a wake up call for those negotiating post-Brexit arrangements – and a reminder that this is a situation where no deal will leave both sides losers.

The EU has just published its short term market forecasts for agriculture and food. Inevitably coronavirus is the backdrop, but there are signs the industry is moving towards some form of normality. Despite the market upset from coronavirus, production of the major agricultural commodities should end up largely the same in 2020 as in 2019.

The exception, it admits, is beef, which was hit hard by a massive downturn in markets and prices. This was largely down to the collapse of the food service sector across Europe at a crucial time of the year. The European Commission report says that with restaurants opening again, albeit with restrictions, and tourism beginning to recover, markets are moving back towards more normal conditions. However it is clear this is a move to a new normality likely to be around for a long time, rather than a return to the conditions of just six months ago.

Overall the report says that for farming, unlike most other industries, the coronavirus restrictions came as a demand rather than a supply shock. This reflects the reality that demand for food is not easily blown off course. While coronavirus brought challenges, particularly for the beef and lamb sector, this was down to the loss of the food service sector rather than a loss of retail demand.

On that basis the report concludes farming is well placed to recover, as markets move back towards more normal patterns of demand. That is good news, but with the challenge of Brexit and the push for new trade deals, farmers here are not heading back to the old normality. Instead they face new and untested market structures, at a time when that is the last thing the industry wants or needs.