A third runway could be a U-turn too far for Cameron

The PM declared in 2010: "No ifs, no buts, no third runway".

It's the ferocity of Conservative MP Tim Yeo's attack on David Cameron, rather than the subject in question (a third runway at Heathrow) , that is most notable. "[T]he Prime Minister must ask himself whether he is man or mouse," the former environment minister writes, before damning Cameron with the faintest of praise "as the leader who made the Tories (nearly) electable again". He goes on to compare him unfavourably  to Harold Macmillan ("presiding over a dignified slide towards insignificance") and finishes with the requisite reference to Thatcher (a Tory leader who won elections).

The reason Yeo's intervention is damaging for Cameron is that the chair of the energy and climate change select committee, who cannot be dismissed as a rent-a-quote maverick, has vocalised the concerns held about his leadership across the Conservative backbenches. Tory MPs increasingly fear that Cameron, to borrow Thatcher's phrase, is not "one of us". The Prime Minister's heart, writes Yeo, is "an organ that still remains impenetrable to most Britons".

For Cameron's MPs, his willingness (or not) to abandon his opposition to a third runway at Heathrow has become a litmus test of whether he is a true Tory. But even for the PM, a man with a penchant for U-turns, this would surely be one policy reversal too many. Both the Conservative manifesto and the Coalition Agreement explicitly opposed a third runway and the presence of Liberal Democrats in Cameron's cabinet (a political reality many Tory MPs conveniently ignore) means that the PM would struggle to change course even if he wanted to. With Ed Miliband opposed to a third runway on principle (he almost resigned as Climate Change Secretary over Gordon Brown's support for the proposal), Cameron will also face no pressure from Labour to change course.

Yet Justine Greening's faltering performance on this morning's Today programme suggests that the Transport Secretary has little confidence in the PM's word. Repeatedly asked whether she could remain in the cabinet if the government backed a third runway, she initially ignored the question (amusingly, she declared: "Yes, I did do a campaign against a third runway. But really this is not a full length runway") before finally conceding: "It would be difficult for me to do that". At no point did she state that she would not be forced to resign because the policy is not changing. When she declared her interest ("my constituency is under the flightpath"), before swiftly adding, "so is Philip Hammond's, as a matter of fact, my predecessor", she sounded like a woman desperate to avoid being reshuffled.

But it's election leaflets such as the one above, issued by Greening, that mean the odds are still against such a flagrant breach of trust. For the aviation minded, "Boris island" or a new hub airport, as proposed by Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert, still looks a better bet. 

A British Airways aircraft taxis past other parked British Airways aircraft at Terminal 5 of Heathrow Airport. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.