My apology to the Tories

I was just joking about only liking Ken Clarke.

On Friday night, I appeared on Radio 4's Any Questions, with former the mayor of London Ken Livingstone, Kenneth Clarke MP and Julia Goldsworthy MP. You can listen to it here.

In the middle of a rather lively exchange with Ken Clarke over the Tories' debt delusion, I remarked:

Ken is one of the best chancellors of the Exchequer we've had in many, many years. He's the only Tory I like [boo! hiss!], let's be honest. But, but, he's wrong on this [the deficit].

I'm not sure if the audience hissed and booed because they were angry that I'd said I liked Clarke or because I'd said that, among Tories, I liked only Clarke.

But on reflection, I have an apology to make to the Conservative Party. There are, in fact, lots of Tories whom I admire, appreciate and/or like -- while disagreeing with most of their policies, principles and positions. On the current front bench, as well as Ken Clarke, I have to admit a soft spot for Oliver Letwin, David Willetts, Dominic Grieve and Sayeeda Warsi.

Going back through recent history, the names Michael Heseltine, Chris Patten, Ian Gilmour, Iain MacLeod, Rab Butler and Winston Churchill spring to mind. (Disclaimer: I include Churchill because he led this nation to victory over Nazism; I nonetheless continue to abhor and despise his racist views and his use of chemical weapons against the Iraqis -- 70 years before Saddam Hussein.)

So, which Tories do you like? From a left/liberal perspective? Answers below the line, please . . .

On a side note, Ken Clarke also made a couple of factually inaccurate remarks that I wanted to challenge in this post.

1) On the subject of Lord Cashcroft, Clarke predictably tried to deflect the questions by repeatedly referring to the non-dom Labour donor Lord Paul, even though Paul is not deputy chairman of the Labour Party, is not funding Laboury's marginal seats campaign, and did not give repeated undertakings to his party leadership or the House of Lords that he would become a "permanent resident" of the UK, for tax purposes, upon becoming a peer. On Friday night, I pointed out to Clarke that Lord Paul had not given millions to Labour, as Ashcroft has to the Conservatives. Clarke responded:

No, Lord Paul has given several million [pounds].

Wrong. As the Ministry of Truth blog points out:

For one thing, it's a bit of a reach to call Lord Paul a major Labour donor when the Electoral Commission's records show that he's made only one personal donation to the party (a mere £10,000 in 2001) while his company, Caparo, has donated the princely sum of £14,250 in three donations, one in 2002 and two more in 2008.

Caparo were a little more generous with Gordon Brown during the period when he was raising funds for his campaign for the Labour leadership, but only to the tune of £45,000 in two donations, which is loose change compared to the amount that Ashcroft has funnelled into the Conservative Party since 2003.

2) On the subject of the rules about non-domiciles, I pointed out that the rules were an anachronism and should be abolished. I also highlighted how Britain ploughs a lonely furrow on this issue -- few other countries offer such a tax loophole to their squillionaire class, not even free-market, low-tax America. Clarke, a former chancellor of the Exchequer in this country, responded:

That's not true. That's not true.

Really? I asked the leading tax accountant Richard Murphy whether or not the Americans make a distinction between domicile and residency for tax purposes. His response? "Absolute bollocks." Oh, and here's the BBC website's take:

Few other countries have such a loophole. Most, like the United States, insist that if you live in the country you have to pay taxes on your worldwide earnings.

In general, over the course of the one-hour radio debate, I couldn't help but feel sorry for Clarke. His heart clearly wasn't in it. Had he been leader of the Conservative Party over the past decade -- the great "What if . . .?" question of modern British politics -- we would probably not have had Michael Ashcroft ennobled and made deputy chair of the Conservative Party. Nor for that matter would we have had the Tories' proposed inheritance-tax cut for the country's 3,000 richest estates or the Tories' strange alliance in Europe with the "ultra-nationalist right". Oh, and we might have avoided the Iraq war, too . . .

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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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.