This article references some vile, racist language which we have reproduced, rather than hide just how morally-repulsive some individuals are. Editor.
George Eustice has risen from obscurity to become the smooth-talking frontman for some of the worst aspects of Brexit.
In February, Environment Minister George Eustice was loudly booed by an audience of farmers at the National Farmers’ Union’s annual conference after failing to reassure them that food standards – and hence their livelihoods – would be safe from imports of cheap and nasty American produce following the end of the Brexit transition period.
It was not the first time that Eustice – a former farming minister who at one time helped run his family’s fruit farm in Cornwall – had attracted the contempt of the farming community, and it’s unlikely to be the last. So what has gone wrong for the MP for Camborne and Redruth, who for years has sought to present himself as the fisherman’s and farmer’s friend?
The answer can be given in two words: broken promises.
Earlier, before the Brexit referendum, Eustice had repeatedly assured farmers and environmentalists that there was nothing to fear from post-Brexit trade deals, as the UK would legislate against anything that might damage our own farming and environmental standards. But anyone who’d looked in detail at his political career would have had little reason to trust these assurances. In fact, Eustice is one of the most slippery members of a cabinet that resembles nothing so much as the amphibian tanks at London Zoo.
At first glance, he might seem the archetypal right-wing Tory Brexiter, but Eustice’s political career began in UKIP, the party for which he stood as a candidate for the European Parliament in 1999 – unsuccessfully. UKIP by that time was already strongly associated with right-wing extremism. Its founder, Alan Sked, had quit the party in 1997, saying “they are racist and have been infected by the far right” and that Nigel Farage had told him “we will never win the ni**er vote. The n*g-n*gs will never vote for us.”
People with long memories might have been reminded of this when Eustice was asked recently whether it was acceptable for Number 10 to have hired Andrew Sabisky, who had claimed that black people are mentally inferior to whites, as a government special adviser. He refused to say, insisting: “That’s a matter for Dominic Cummings and Number 10.”
In any event, Eustice appears either not to have noticed the presence of far-right extremists in UKIP or not to have been bothered by it. He later explained his personal motives for joining the party: ” My family business had been badly damaged by the ERM fiasco, and I thought that the EU was undermining our democracy.”
Perhaps disheartened by UKIP’s dismal showing in two general elections (it secured 0.5% of the vote in 1997 and 1.6% in 2001), in the early 2000s Eustice jumped ship to the Conservative Party, and for a time dropped his outright opposition to the European Union. He later claimed: “I genuinely thought then that it would be possible to stay a member of the EU but negotiate the repatriation of powers and take back control of key policy areas.”
All the while, however, he was working closely with the group of right-wing ‘eurosceptic’ Tories that John Major referred to as “the bastards”. In 2002, he became the director of the anti-euro No Campaign, which led opposition to the UK adopting the EU’s single currency.
This campaign can be seen as the blueprint for Vote Leave’s shamelessly populist campaign in 2016, and many of the same figures were part of both, including Iain Duncan Smith and Dominic Cummings, who was hired as the No Campaign’s director of strategy.
In a 2002 BBC interview, Eustice said he wanted to conduct a “people’s campaign”, and explained that the public would be “more likely to respond to colourful figures such as Wetherspoons pub boss Tim Martin” than to establishment politicians.
Eustice, whose net worth has been estimated at several million pounds – the family farm has a turnover of some £5 million a year – was one of the first to strike the ‘anti-elite’ note that was later to prove so effective: “The pro-euro campaign will be forced to rely on the political elites to make their case, but we will turn that to our advantage by running a popular non-political campaign that connects with voters and that is focused on jobs and living standards. It will be a people’s campaign.”
In the event, a referendum on euro membership was never held, and the campaign against it was stepped down in 2004 after Chancellor Gordon Brown ruled out joining the single currency for the foreseeable future. By this time, Eustice was beginning to climb the greasy pole of Conservative Party politics, becoming Head of Press under party leader Michael Howard during the 2005 general election. After Howard resigned, Eustice – surprisingly, perhaps – joined David Cameron’s leadership campaign team, going on to serve as Cameron’s Press Secretary between 2005 and 2008.
Cameron was the smooth-talking PR man par excellence, and some of his glib, superficial style seems to have rubbed off on the Cornwall farm boy. In 2008, ‘anti-elitist’ Eustice took a senior job with Portland Communications, the ultimate insider PR and lobbying firm.
Portland specialises in helping ultra-wealthy clients – including various repressive governments of countries such as Rwanda, Kazakhstan and Qatar – influence the political process in the UK. Among the ways it has done this is, allegedly, a practice known as “astroturfing”, in other words setting up phony grassroots movements in order to influence public opinion, as Channel 4 reported in 2014. Its clients while Eustice was there included the Putin regime in Russia and the giant Russian fossil fuel corporation Gazprom.
In 2010, Eustice was elected as MP for Camborne and Redruth, scraping in with a majority of just 66 votes. Perhaps his most notable achievement as an MP in the Cameron years was to act as frontman for the ‘No to AV’ campaign against the system of proportional representation proposed by the Conservatives’ Lib Dem coalition partners, which he claimed would “undermine our democracy”. In 2015, he was promoted to Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and he also served on David Cameron’s Number 10 Policy Board, advising Cameron on energy and environment issues.
Eustice’s own record on these issues can only be described as abysmal – he has consistently voted against efforts to tackle climate change, and in 2016 described EU laws to protect the environment, such as the birds and habitats directives, as “spirit crushing”.
When Cameron announced the Brexit referendum after winning the 2015 general election, Eustice was quick to turn against his mentor and to put the deeply dishonest PR techniques that he had learned from Cameron and Portland to use in the Leave campaign. Foremost among these was the art of the false promise. Various interest groups, from farmers to fishermen to business people, were promised the world, while the downsides to Brexit were airily waved away as ‘Project Fear’.
These techniques worked all too well, and Eustice was to prove an especially useful frontman with the farming and fishing communities. Fishermen in Newlyn were promised that “a vote for Brexit would see the UK take back control of fishing waters and secure fairer quotas for West Country fleets”. Farmers were informed that they “will be better off if we leave the EU” and that they had nothing to fear from future trade deals with the US and other countries.
Vote Leave’s referendum win opened the door to real political power for Eustice, but this did not arrive fully until Theresa May’s more compromising approach to Brexit was replaced by the reckless bridge-burning of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings.
During the May years, Eustice occasionally appeared to show an ability to think and act independently. After resigning from May’s government in 2019 in protest against her promise to allow MPs a vote on delaying Brexit if her exit deal failed to make it through Parliament, he even tabled an amendment to the Agriculture Bill that would have meant banning the sale of imported foods produced to low animal welfare and environmental standards, such as chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-injected beef.
In retrospect, however, this now looks much more like window-dressing to drum up support for a hard Brexit than any genuine commitment to protect food standards and British farmers. A year later, after Boris Johnson had brought him back into government as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Eustice pointedly refused to rule out such imports when quizzed on this by Sky’s Sophy Ridge. He then proceeded to vote against the very same amendment he himself had introduced earlier when it was tabled by the Labour Party in the House of Commons.
Eustice now occupies one of the most powerful positions in government, but – as his reception from the farmers at the NFU conference shows – he is also faced with the inevitable consequence of making so many false promises. The people to whom these were made are now discovering that they were lied to and that their livelihoods face imminent destruction.
And against their anger, all the glib PR skills in the world may prove – like Eustice himself – somewhat worse than useless.