The Conservatives’ flirtation with leaving the European Union risks destroying the rural economy in areas like the North East and costing the party votes, a senior minister has been told.
Environment Secretary Liz Truss was given the blunt warning as she addressed a farming conference in what should be her party’s safest seat in the North East, Hexham.
But prominent landowner and farmer Charles Beaumont told her the party’s flirtation with the “nuclear” option of leaving the EU would do massive harm to the farming industry by leaving UK agriculture stranded between heavily subsidised blocks in the EU and America.
Mrs Truss said her preference was for the UK to stay in Europe with reforms negotiated by Prime Minister David Cameron, but said the British electorate deserved the right to have its say on EU membership.
The exchange came at yesterday’s Northern Farming Conference, an event organised by the Country Land Association and a number of other bodies prominent in the rural economy.
Mr Beaumont, a former High Sheriff of Northumberland who runs the Trees Please nursery in Corbridge and a number of other rural businesses, said the Government was over-reacting to the “irritation” of immigration and the threat of UKIP.
He said leaving Europe would make it difficult for British farmers to compete against their European and American counterparts and could cost the Tories votes in their traditional heartlands.
Mrs Truss replied: “The single market is hugely important for the food and farming industry but I think it’s right that people have their say on the free movement of people and the regulatory burden that’s coming out of Europe.
“It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to let the British people have their say. I’ve every confidence that the Prime Minister will do a good job in negotiations to get us more decision-making back in Britain while remaining part of the EU.”
The tough questioning at yesterday’s conference came after another speaker - HSBC’s head of agriculture Allan Wilkinson - told delegates that despite problems with the EU, British agriculture would suffer massively by the country withdrawing from Europe.
Conservative leader David Cameron has pledged a referendum on EU membership if his party wins the next election.
The pledge - widely seen as an attempt to see off the threat to the Tories from UKIP - was criticised this week by Labour leader Ed Miliband, who said uncertainty around a referendum would scare off investment into Britain.
Despite the rise of UKIP, the most recent opinion poll on EU membership showed 55% of people in Britain wanted to stay in Europe, up from 44% in 2012 and with support at its highest level since 1991.