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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: Thérèse “Let them eat turnip” Coffey is channelling Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette was probably deeply upset by her fate. The environment secretary, however, appears unbothered by the current state of affairs

Photo: The New European

If the Spitting Image legend is to be believed, “vegetables” is how Margaret Thatcher saw her all-male cabinet. Liz Truss lost a leadership survival race to a lettuce. And now Thérèse Coffey, the food secretary, despite lacking the glamour of Marie Antoinette, is nonetheless channelling her.

If “take back control” was the three-word slogan/lie that helped to unleash Brexit upon us, might “let them eat turnip” be its four-word epitaph? What is it with Tory women and vegetables?

The New European was surely ahead of its time, five years ago, when our front page featured a haggard-looking Theresa May, rake and shovel behind her, holding out a cabbage to the camera, beneath the headline: “Dig for Brexit”, and a sub-head: “Special issue. Power Cuts. Rationing: How you and your family can survive no-deal Britain.”

Mrs May came and went, then Boris Johnson came, and we got a deal, did we not? Yet here we are, on our fifth Brexit prime minister, Rishi Sunak having to do another deal to fix the deal that was done, the oven-ready one on which an election was fought and won, which even its cooks now admit was not ready to put into the baking tray, let alone take out of the oven ready to be served.

I have never met Thérèse Coffey, she who believes we should be turning to turnip in the absence of other, more popular vegetables failing to arrive here as part of the “nothing to do with Brexit” supply chain issues. My only sense of her therefore comes from what I have seen, heard and read.

I occasionally read that she is a very nice person. I have no way of knowing if that is true. Seemingly Liz Truss believes so, but then her judgment is so catastrophic I am disinclined to trust it. So I have to rely more on what I see and hear with my own eyes and ears on TV and radio.

Coffey, who, thanks to Truss, laughably has “deputy prime minister” on her CV, strikes me as having very limited political skills, very little empathy, and views that are out of touch with modern Britain.

On the day Keir Starmer spoke at the National Farmers’ Union conference last week, I asked a farmer friend who was there to let me know how he went down. He texted me to say: “Starmer did fine, but never mind that – you must watch Mark Spencer performance… car crash!” I didn’t, but I read up on it, and it would seem the food and farming minister went down very badly indeed, not least when he was laughed at when talking up “the benefits of Brexit”.

The next day, the same friend texted again: “If Spencer was car crash, Coffey is multiple pile-up, motorway shut both directions. MUST WATCH.” So I watched back. OMG!!! The environment secretary could not have looked more bored, disengaged, couldn’t-give-a-toss about the problems facing farmers or indeed anyone else if she had tried.

Johnson’s “fuck business”, which has done so much damage to the Tories’ relationship with business, was at least said behind closed doors, only for it to emerge later. Coffey was essentially sitting there saying “fuck farmers” to their faces, with the head of the farmers’ union, the hugely impressive Minette Batters, sitting alongside her. The two women got into an argument about egg production, during which it became clear Batters knew what she was talking about, and cared about it, whereas on both fronts Coffey did not.

Marie “let them eat cake” Antoinette was eventually sentenced to death by guillotine. Thérèse “let them eat turnip” Coffey was roundly booed by the farmers. Marie Antoinette was probably deeply upset by her fate. Coffey appeared, frankly, not to give a shit.

So sad to hear about Betty Boothroyd. She was a total one-off. One of the kindest, wisest, most loving and loveable women you could ever wish to know. I loved her when I was a journalist, and I loved her when I was on the other side of the fence because she was such a support, in good times and bad.

I last spoke to her a couple of weeks ago when she called me after hearing a debate I did on Brexit with Jacob Rees-Mogg and Claire Fox. Although I don’t know what her actual final words were, the last thing she said to me was that Brexit was an unmitigated disaster and she would never give up on the dream of the UK being back in the EU. So she always was and always will be an inspiration. When she appeared at People’s Vote rallies at almost 90 years old she invariably stole the show. Never lost the star quality.

Yorkshire has lost one of its finest daughters. Parliament has lost one of its greatest Speakers. Politics has lost one of its clearest voices. And many have lost a wonderful and supportive friend. RIP Betty.

Ibec, the Irish equivalent of the CBI, asked Bertie Ahern and me to launch their Peace and Prosperity campaign aimed at educating business and people about the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, the workings of Ireland’s membership of the EU, and why both matter so much.

Ahead of the main event for several hundred people in Dublin’s Mansion House, we attended a small dinner at which Bertie and I led a discussion on the Northern Ireland Protocol issues, all quite dry, quite technical, until the one person who had come down from the North for the evening, academic Deirdre Heenan, gave us her assessment.

“We are sick and tired,” she said, “of being collateral damage in the never-ending civil war inside the Tory Party. We are sick and tired of the same faces who told us why Brexit was good for us now popping up the whole time to tell us how to fix the mess they made of it. If I have to see Theresa Villiers or Bernard Jenkin or Kate Hoey or Iain Duncan Smith or any of the rest of them one more time…”

The sentence didn’t end. But the point was well made, and she is absolutely right.

Meanwhile, with the Northern Ireland institutions having been more down and not running than up and running since devolution, she gave some dire figures about NHS delivery in the province compared with the rest of the UK, where the picture is dire enough already.

Memo to editor: In December 2017, Deirdre wrote a piece for us, headlined “Irish tensions stoked by Brexit border ‘deal’.” I suggest we get her back again.

While in Dublin, I caught up with Joe Lennon, who was my oppo in the Irish government a quarter of a century ago when the Good Friday Agreement negotiations were going on. As we chatted over old times and new, he made a fascinating observation, namely that it was at least arguable as to whether we would have succeeded had the talks been taking place now rather than then.

1998 was still a time when mobile phones were essentially used to make phone calls rather than tweet, film, post, instant comment; when journalists could take time to prepare reports and articles, rather than be expected to be giving endless running commentary on every development, large or small. Of course we will never know.

Reflecting on all the people who were involved in the negotiations in that grisly Stormont building at the time, with hundreds of journalists outside hungry for anything from inside, the idea of even a fraction of them being in permanent social media mode is likely to feature in my next bout of insomnia.

From Dublin to Stirling, where I gave the Williamson Memorial Lecture on Wednesday, an annual event since 1983 in memory of former politics student Andrew Williamson who was killed in a car accident two years earlier.

His parents, alas both now dead, created and funded the lecture with the aim of bringing a high-profile political speaker to the university each year to speak on a theme of contemporary political interest.

The title of my lecture, “Fixing Our Broken Politics: we cannot give up, we have to get more engaged”, gives you a sense of the contemporary political interest I was seeking to address.

And I hope you will be pleased to know that I made clear my view that the next generation has not just the right, but possibly the duty, to undo the awful damage to their and the country’s interests done by Brexit.

Charles Kennedy, I am sure, would be absolutely thrilled that he has become the lead vocalist on a new song, Liberate, by two Scottish folk bands, Valtos and Project Smok. It would be a fine piece of music even without Charles’s voice, but the short speech extracts added to it make it very special. Legacy!

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See inside the Let them eat sovereignty edition

A shortage of tomatoes affecting UK supermarkets is widening to other fruit and vegetables and is likely to last weeks. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

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A food industry expert warns that parts of the food chain may collapse when Brexit checks come in later this year

Image: The New European

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The EU is watching what comes next with hope… and some scepticism