Is Massachusetts really turning Republican?

Could Scott Brown replace the late Ted Kennedy?

If, like me, you think of Massachusetts as the sort of place where they weigh the Democratic vote, rather than count it, you'll be surprised to read that the state's junior seat in the Senate could be won by an anti-tax, socially conservative Republican.

But with six days to go until voters head to the polls, commentators are taking seriously the possibility that the Republican Scott Brown could replace the late Ted Kennedy.

The speculation was triggered by a series of polls putting Brown within touching distance of the Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley. Coakley's lead has fallen from 30 per cent in October to 15 per cent at the start of this month and has now, according to one poll, evaporated all together.

Brown's progress is even more striking considering he lies well to the right of where successful Massachusetts Republican candidates usually reside. In the past, the party has fielded fiscally conservative but socially liberal candidates, such as the former governer Mitt Romney, whose support for gay rights dogged his campaign for the GOP presidential ticket.

But not only does Coakley oppose same-sex marriage, he supports waterboarding terrorism suspects and has vowed to destroy health-care reform.

Few psephologists predict a Republican victory, and most commentators have dismissed the poll showing Brown ahead by 1 per cent as an outlier. But the hype behind his campaign says much about the desire of the right-wing media to write off Obama's presidency as a failure and to suggest that the Democrats will suffer huge losses in this year's midterms.

Should Brown pull off a victory against the odds, he would be the first Republican to do so since 1947. He has vowed, if elected, to be the "41st" senator: the one who could tip the Senate against health-care reform.

It would be grim indeed if Brown replaced Kennedy and defeated what the late senator described as "the cause of my life".

 

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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.