IN 1846, the then Conservative party tore itself apart over an agricultural issue. That was the repeal of the Corn Laws, which protected landlords from competition from Europe and elsewhere.

It was Robert Peel that drove their removal, and the split that created left his party unable to again form a majority government for 30 years. Those strains never went away; they surfaced with John Major over the Maastricht Treaty, but even the split over the Corn Laws is eclipsed by Tory rancour over Brexit.

There is a 'hang the consequences' element to this debate. If the price is a hard Brexit or even a Labour government some Conservatives deem those a price worth paying to claim victory over Brussels. Time will tell where this leads, but from an agricultural perspective the possibility of both now needs to be factored into the equation.

While government and opposition are very different beasts, a Labour government would have a very different view of the future for agricultural support to those being driven by Michael Gove. Where that would lead is an unknown, but what is certain is that the last thing farmers need is further uncertainty. The odds of it happening have shortened dramatically as a result of current events at Westminster.

The other possibility that really has moved up the agenda is a hard Brexit. This would be the inevitable outcome if Westminster and Brussels cannot negotiate a deal. That would happen next March, with no transition period if there is a complete collapse of the pursuit of a solution.

At a stroke many things would change, the most obvious being the movement of goods without customs barriers. World Trade Organisation rules and tariffs would apply, and given the EU's fortress Europe approach to food imports, getting any agricultural products into the EU would be a big challenge.

At the same time food coming from the EU to the UK would also face WTO tariffs. Since we import more than we export that could help protect the UK food market, and in theory deliver higher prices. That would be the outcome on the basis of supply and demand theory, but that is a far from exact science.

Even the great Scottish economist and father of supply and demand theory, Adam Smith, acknowledged its imperfections in the real world. A more likely hard Brexit outcome would be that the government would seek to highlight its global free trade credentials by allowing tariff free access to the UK for most products, in the hope that others would match that gesture.

It would retain tariffs for industries of strategic significance it believes need to enjoy protection. There is however no reason for it to extend this to food. Opening the market to tariff free imports would enhance rather than reduce food security; it would give the food industry access to cheaper raw materials for processing; above all it could reduce prices on supermarket shelves.

Farmers would lose out, but ironically that is no different to what happened with the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws, when the Conservative party last split. The days of the Tory MPs from the shires are long gone. Today there are few in the largely urban-focussed party that would draw a line in the sand to fight for farmers' interests. Instead the message will be that farmers need to focus on the top end of the market where they can gain from attracting a premium for products with better provenance and other credentials than imports. This might sound harsh, but the logic is compelling.

A separate argument from pro-Brexit Tories is that a US trade deal is the ultimate prize, and that if Donald Trump says that means siding with him against Europe that will be acceptable. For agriculture there is no upside in this. Beyond tea, biscuits and whisky there is not a lot in the US market for mainstream agriculture. However the UK is an attractive market for lower cost American producers of just about every food product on our shelves. We would also be dependent on a country whose president is out to 'make America great' by slapping on arbitrary tariffs for trading partners – and whose population in any event is lower than that of the EU.

Jaw, jaw in Brussels still tops war, war, but that could soon be forgotten if the Conservative party once again tears itself apart over Europe.