Who is winning the economic argument?

Two polls today present a mixed picture.

As crisis engulfs the eurozone, people across Europe are beginning to question whether austerity is, indeed, the only route out to recovery. But what impact is that having on the economic argument in the UK, and what does it mean for the political parties? Two polls out this morning present a rather mixed picture.

A Times/Populus poll (£) shows a thoroughly divided public. A small majority of 51 per cent believe that the government should slow the pace of spending cuts rather than trying to eliminate the structural deficit by 2017. Conversely, 49 per cent of voters back the coalition’s “Plan A”, and want the government to prioritise deficit elimination by 2017, even if that means more cuts. This result has been broadly consistent for 18 months, suggesting that the eurozone crisis and the implementation of cuts have not had much of an effect.

Elsewhere, a Guardian/ICM poll suggests that the eurozone crisis might actually be helping the government, as the public increasingly blames problems in Europe for the new recession in Britain. Asked about four possible culprits, 29 per cent continued to blame debts amassed by Labour, 24 per cent blamed the eurozone, 21 per cent the banks’ reluctance to lend, and just 17 per cent chose the coalition’s cuts. This shows a slight shift away from cuts and towards Europe since the same question was asked last autumn.

Two years into the new government, it is not good for Labour that the public continue to hold them responsible for the country’s economic woes. Both polls show very similar overall ratings, placing Labour on 41 points. Populus has the Tories seven points behind at 33, while ICM places them at 36.

There are several interesting things going on here. The first is that David Cameron’s personal ratings - consistenly higher than his party's - are falling. Last week, I asked whether “Lucky Dave’s” luck was running out, and that image is compounded. ICM gives the Prime Minister a net negative rating of -11, a significant fall since December (when he ranked at +5) and placing him neck and neck with the Labour leader Ed Miliband at -12.

The second area where the coalition has consistently outpolled Labour is on the economy. Although recent polls have suggested that Miliband’s team is closing the gap, today’s results suggest there is still a distance to go. Populus found that 40 per cent of the public backed Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg on the economy, compared with 33 per cent for Miliband and Ed Balls.

ICM’s results mirrored this, finding that when people were asked to put their overall political preferences aside, 44 per cent preferred Osborne and Cameron on the economy, while 35 per cent trusted Miliband and Balls. While this is a substantial lead for the Tories, it’s worth noting that it has been diminishing steadily, from a 21 point gap in December to just nine now.

These polls show a public beginning to fall out of love with the coalition, but not yet confident of the alternative. Eurozone or no eurozone, there is a long way to go yet for Labour to win the economic argument.
 

George Osborne outside 11 Downing Street before presenting his Budget, March 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer 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.