In the wake of Boris Johnson’s resignation, and in advance of what is widely expected to be a coruscating report by the Parliamentary Committee of Privileges, a bad-tempered debate over former Prime Minister’s legacy has taken place on Twitter.
Ben Goldsmith, an environmentalist and financier and one-time non-executive director at Defra said “On nature and climate, Boris Johnson has been by far the most passionate and committed PM Britain has ever had. This is his most important legacy.”
Goldsmith’s list Johnson’s achievements then began with “the game-changing reform of agriculture subsidies and the new Environmental Land Management scheme, the first of its kind anywhere in the world (Agriculture Act 2020)” and the “25 Year Environment Plan, which was given legal underpinning by the far-reaching and ambitious Environment Act (2021).”
But farmer and author James Rebanks hit back. He said “Absolutely ridiculous take Ben. He massively worsened the trading relationship for British farmers – dismantled the old (yes, flawed) systems before creating a new one – encouraging agricultural intensification which is the biggest driver of nature decline in Britain.
“Yes he blathered on about nature as is the fashion, but you simply can’t be a free trader, and a turbo capitalist, and on the side of nature – it’s nonsense. He’s on the wrong side. He’s done more harm than good. This period has been catastrophic for nature.”
But Goldsmith highlighted other successes of the Johnson government, including “a slew of new national ‘super nature reserves’, including Avalon in the majestic Somerset Levels, as well as new ‘national nature recovery zones’; a new requirement for *all* building projects to deliver a ‘biodiversity net gain’” and “the £800 million ‘Nature for Climate Fund’ and a new ‘English woodland creation offer’, a generous package of support for expanding native tree cover in England.”
However Rebanks criticism did not end there. He said “[Johnson] dismantled the old flawed farm support system before a new nature friendly one was functional. It’s still a complete mess. [I] still won’t buy net gain. And you’ve unleashed an extremely dodgy unregulated carbon/rewilding corporate gold rush. The whole movement is based on an absolutely ruinous piece of Gove logic that we can have agricultural intensification in the fields to compete globally and nature recovery around them.
“Our entire food/farming/nature policy system is a joke. No joined up thinking – screw farmers, leave it to Tesco, leave EU, free trade with less regulated food zones, inaccessible systems for nature recovery, declining budget for nature/farming/food, complete lack of governance.”
Goldsmith however expressed regret that Johnson had gone “He had only just got started when he was booted out. So be happy in the knowledge that we have made big strides on climate and nature in recent years, like nothing we’ve seen previously under any PM. Let’s hope more of our politicians show the same level of ambition on these vital issues as Boris has shown.”
Rebanks was not won over, and said that the commitment to beavers and butterflies was “vacuous empty rhetoric.” “We need a politics that holistically addresses the issues in a grown up way.”
Goldsmith responded that “Given not a single previous PM lifted a finger to arrest the catastrophic decline of nature in Britain, I think he did a pretty good job. Not perfect, lots to do, the ELM needs to be significantly more generous, but it was a fine start. For the first time in my life, having watched the die-off of everything I love without anyone doing anything about it, I have some optimism now that we will turn things around.”