Cameron’s biggest test

David Cameron never had his “Clause Four” moment. He now has the chance of one, by forcing his party

David Cameron never did have his "Clause Four" moment during the four and a half years of his supposedly "modernising" leadership, which is one of the reasons why the Tories did not win the election. Now, at the very last minute, he has the opportunity for one.

It is clear that the Tory party is trying hard to stop Cameron offering electoral reform to the Liberal Democrats (just as the Lib Dems are doubtless trying hard to prevent Nick Clegg from abandoning it). Even that celebrated "Tory wet", Michael Heseltine has said:

I don't think for a minute that David Cameron will concede change to the voting system and I don't think that he needs to. His position is much stronger than I think the commentators give credit for.

Hmm. I actually suspect that the Tory-Liberal talks are much more perilous and tricky than many commentators, mainly on the right, are making out, as a sense of inevitably is spun to propel Cameron into No 10. The reason for my suspicion is the proportional representation question.

It would be dishonest of me to pretend not to think that a "progressive alliance" between Labour, the Lib Dems and others would be better for Britain than a Tory-Liberal one. But if the Lib Dems really are going to hook up with the Tories -- and I believe it is still an "if" -- then Cameron will finally have had his Clause Four moment by forcing his party to adapt to a new reality, of which he seems keenly aware.

Two caveats, however. First, if the Tories campaign against electoral reform, having delivered a referendum, that would not only undermine the whole concept, but also show the Lib Dems to have sold themselves hopelessly short. Second, Cameron has shown impressive adaptability in the past few days, but all the signs from the past suggest that he will be unable to take on the right of the parliamentary party he meets this evening.

The question Cameron will be putting to his party is: does it want power, or purity? Time will tell.

Get 12 issues for just £5.99 plus a free copy of "Liberty in the Age of Terror" by A C Grayling.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
GETTY
Show Hide image

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.