Jostling for Geoff Hoon's seat

Candidate confirms he will run for the Notts seat.

No sooner has the news that Geoff Hoon is to step down from the Commons at the next election -- perhaps in the wake of his role in the "coup that never was" last month -- than speculation has kicked off as to who might take up the Labour candidacy in Ashfield, Notts.

Paul Waugh reports:

I'm told the names in the frame are John Knight, the leader of Ashfield District Council, and former Hoon special adviser James Connal.

Connal, a canny lad, raised eyebrows when he rented a flat in Sutton-in-Ashfield. Not the sort of place you'd normally find a suave, London-based lobbyist. But it is smack in the constituency of his former boss.

Mr Connal appears to have been in close contact with some activists locally, particularly as the calls increased for Hoon to be deselected. The fact that he has worked with private equity firms may or may not appeal to the local members.

But another name that is bound to figure on any speculative shortlist is Michael Dugher, another former special adviser to Hoon. Dugher is currently the Prime Minister's Chief Political Spokesman. He grew up in Edlington, a pit village nearby. Could his arm be twisted into quitting No 10 and going for Ashfield?

Interesting. Certainly Michael Dugher is Labour MP material, and rumour has it that he has been promised a seat by the party leadership. He narrowly missed out on his home town of Doncaster to Ed Miliband in 2005.

Having -- paradoxically -- previously worked hard as special adviser for Hoon, who would later emerge as a plotter against Gordon Brown, Dugher has since impressed key people in No 10. Will he go up against his former colleage from Hoon's office, though?

James Connal, when I call following Waugh's blog, confirms to me that he will indeed be standing for the seat, though he is characteristically modest. "I'm going for it, but of course it's up to Labour's NEC as to whether I'm on the shortlist," he says.

But: "I live there. I am an elected member of my local Labour Party branch and have been going up there assiduously for the past year. I know a lot of the party members and I think we need to pull together to beat the Lib Dems and the Conservatives."

Fighting talk from a man who has found himself the subject of an ominous mini-smear campaign in recent days, including being described as "baby-faced" and worse in the gossip columns.

In fact, Connal is an old head on young shoulders, with impressive socially conscious credentials, having run the Save the Children child poverty campaign in the run-up to the Budget, and who now -- post-government -- currently provides advice to the Georgian government.

Doubtless, Dugher deserves a seat, too. But Connal is clearly going to go for it in Ashfield. It would be a shame if room could not be found on Labour's list for both of these rather different, but equally worthy former colleagues and friends.

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James Macintyre is political correspondent for 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.