Labour turns on Cable over "capitulation" to the Tories

Chuka Umunna says reforms to employment law are an attack on workers' rights.

Last week, Vince Cable was eulogised by Ed Balls as the Lib Dem who could no almost wrong. "Vince has distinguished himself by always making the argument about what's right for Britain," he said, as he beamed at the Business Secretary, sat beside him on Andrew Marr's sofa.

But Balls's colleague Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary, isn't feeling so charitable towards Cable. Earlier this morning, Umunna took to Twitter to criticise the Business Secretary's reforms to employment law as an attack on workers' rights. He added that Ming Campbell, who has questioned Cable's textual relations with Labour, should worry more about "Cable's capitulation to Fallon, Hancock and co. on employment law"

While Cable will today formally reject calls for the introduction of "no-fault dismissal" or fire-at-will (a proposal that emanated from Tory donor Adrian Beecroft's now-infamous report on employment law), he will announce a significant cut in the cap on unfair dismissal payouts. The current £72,000 limit is expected to be reduced to an employee's annual salary, or another lower figure. In addition, employment tribunals will be sped up, so that costs are reduced and weak cases thrown out more swiftly. Though you wouldn't know it from the right's response, 80 per cent of Beecroft's recommendations have been adopted or put out to consultation.

Continuing his assault on Cable, Umunna declared, "We're not in a recession because of the rights our constituents have at work - its cos of the govt's failed economic plan." The Business Secretary, of course, wouldn't disagree. During his appearance on Marr last week, he sagely observed, "The problem of growth is that we have a very serious shortage of demand. It's nothing to do with those supply side measures basically. It's a demand issue."

As a result, suspicion persists among the Tories that Cable's heart isn't really in it. But whatever the Business Secretary's true feelings, a third successive quarter of recession persuaded the coalition partners to strike a grand bargain on growth. You give us supply-side reform, and we'll give you a small business bank (a measure that allowed Cable to hail the end of "pure laissez-faire" economics).

Umunna's decision to respond with an attack of rare ferocity suggests that not everyone in Labour is so keen to lure the Business Sectetary from the Tories' clutches.

Business Secretary Vince Cable will announce reforms to employment law today. Photograph: Getty Image.

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.