Stephen Byers has an apology to make. Not, sadly, for telling porkies or mismanaging the railways. He wants to apologise for going to the World Trade Organisation's conference in Seattle in 1999 and doing his bit for free trade. He now says he was misguided. Now that he has been 'meeting farmers and communities at the sharp end', he has concluded that free trade isn't such a good idea after all. 'The way forward,' he writes in the Guardian, 'is through a regime of managed trade in which markets are slowly opened up and trade policy levers like subsidies and tariffs are used to help achieve development goals.'
It isn't just his days as secretary of state for trade on which Mr Byers is turning his back. As recently as last autumn he was emerging as an unlikely champion of free trade and enemy of protectionism. 'Let us be clear,' he said in a speech at Trinity College, Dublin, on 23 October last year, 'protectionism anywhere is a threat to prosperity everywhere.' His particular target was the Common Agricultural Policy, which he accused of impoverishing Third World farmer and Western consumer alike.
However, it now seems as if Welsh farmers have got to Mr Byers. In an exchange with Mr Elfyn Llwyd, MP for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, last December – 'whose constituency I know well for family reasons' – Mr Byers appeared to change tack. The problem, he now seems to believe, is not sheep farmers getting £4,000 a year in subsidies but large agribusinesses that receive £200,000 or more.
Mr Byers isn't the first politician to have caved in at the sight of moaning British farmers – the Conservative party seemed to base its entire last manifesto on the needs of small farmers, in contravention of the liberal economic agenda it had pursued in government. But he was right the first time: protectionism everywhere is a threat to prosperity. The handouts to farmer ap Giles of Meirionnydd are just as big a part of the problem as are payments to agribusiness.