A brief turn in Brighton

Welsh Assembly member and leading Lib Dem blogger Peter Black
enjoys an all too short visit to Bri

The sunshine that greeted representatives as they arrived in Brighton managed to last into the Sunday morning, but by then the wind had already started to pick up and dark clouds were gathering above our heads. By Monday the wind had died but it was still overcast.

In contrast the mood of Liberal Democrats at this year's Conference is sunny and upbeat. At last we are really putting some meat on the bone with respect to our green policies, our Shadow Home Secretary is taking a principled Liberal Democrat stance on the surveillance society, including the whole state apparatus of ID cards, CCTV and DNA data banks and having settled for Ming as our leader, the vast majority are getting behind him and willing him to succeed.

As a Welsh Assembly member my stay here can be only short. The Assembly is back in session on Tuesday so I must leave the Sussex coast at 8am that day to debate affordable housing in a place where my views can hopefully have an immediate impact.

Most of the debates in the main hall on Sunday and Monday are English-only topics or on matters that I can safely leave to others, so my main focus has been on the fringe meetings and on the Welsh media. I made a point though of attending Ming's question time session, if only because the media will want my comments on the answer to the inevitable question on leadership.

Sunday saw an interview with Radio Wales and BBC Wales about the inevitable leadership issues, but this time the leadership of the Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly group as well. After that it was off to a meeting about the Severn Barrage, the Conference rally with the federal leader himself addressing us, Shelter and the annual Lib Dem blogger awards.

Entitled 'Human rights and civil liberties: home and abroad' the rally was a celebration of the essence of Liberal Democracy. A packed auditorium heard passionate speeches in defence of the right of dissent by Nick Clegg MP, Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty, Philippe Sands QC and Sir Menzies Campbell. If anybody ever questions what the Liberal Democrats are for again they should be made to watch video footage of this event.

Alas I did not win the award for best blog by an elected representative. That honour went instead toCouncillor Mary Reid of Kingston. Liberal Democrat blog of the year went to James Graham's Quaequam blog.

Highlight of the night was the award for most humorous Lib Dem blog, which was won by Liberal Mafia. In time honoured fashion Don Liberali was unable to attend in person but sent an acceptance note instead together with the present of a horses head, not a real one you understand but convincing nevertheless.

Monday saw a session with the Police Federation, held under Chatham House rules. This was an opportunity for both sides to explore issues of mutual concern and for some lobbying to be carried out in respect of our manifesto. The one thing that become evident as we move from fringe meeting to fringe meeting is the respect that various lobby groups have for our spokespeople. We listen and we respond. That does not always happen with Labour and the Tories.

Tuesday morning and I am on my way back to Cardiff. It has been fun. Roll on next year.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.