Could Labour win the election?

Tory lead falls to just 2 points.

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Latest poll (Sunday Times/YouGov): Labour nine seats short of a majority.

"Gordon Brown on course to win election" is a headline almost no one would have expected to see at this stage of the electoral cycle. But today's YouGov poll confirms what a terrible start the Conservatives have made to their campaign. It puts the Tories on 37 per cent, just 2 points ahead of Labour, and the party's lowest lead since December 2008.

If the figures were repeated on a uniform swing at the election, Labour would emerge as the largest single party in a hung parliament, nine seats short of an overall majority.

The poll is particularly alarming for the Tories for two reasons. First, it suggests that the potential number of Labour voters is far higher than previously thought.

Second, it suggests that the Tories suffer when their policies come under sustained scrutiny. Brown's call for voters to "take a second look at us, and a long, hard look at them" seems to have resonated with the media and the public.How else can we explain the Conservatives' precipitous decline?

New Statesman poll of polls

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Labour 28 seats short of a majority.

As I've pointed out before, the fragile nature of the economic recovery appears to be working in Brown's favour -- it strengthens his argument that immediate spending cuts would damage the economy and upsets the Tories' message. The poll also confirms that the bullying allegations against the PM have done no damage to Labour's support. It may be that the voters actually rather like being led by someone with a bit of a temper.

Brown will surely now be tempted to call an election while the political momentum is with Labour and go to the country in April. But I'd still be surprised if he doesn't plump for 6 May in order to avoid the cost of holding two separate elections.

As a word of caution to Labour optimists, it's worth pointing out that there's still almost no chance of Brown winning an overall majority. Boundary changes mean that Labour's 66-seat majority has fallen to a notional lead of 48. This leaves Cameron with only 24 seats to win to knock off Labour's overall advantage. I expect the Tories still to be leading in the key marginals.

But for Labour to emerge as the largest single party would be an astonishing turnaround. That the Tories are still struggling to defeat a government battered by recession and the expenses scandal is quite remarkable.

Can Cameron lead a successful Tory comeback? He has done so before, of course, in the run-up to the election-that-never was. We'll begin to find out later today.

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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.