The Prime Monster gets cuddly

Brown has become all touchy-feely since the Prime Monster bullying row.

Big Gordie is frightening his colleagues again -- this time with hugs. Brown has become all touchy-feely since the Prime Monster bullying row. I hear from a surprised visitor to No 10 that he has taken to greeting ministers and MPs with a mighty embrace instead of a growl. The government's less robust members complain that the Great Hugger's mateyness is intimidating. One said he would rather take his chances with a flying Nokia than a bear hug that squeezed him to within a breath of his life.

The Tory whip Simon Burns is plotting revenge on Speaker Bercow after he denounced Burns's rowdy behaviour at Prime Minister's Questions. A tearoom informant whispered that a seething Burns is threatening to stand against Bercow when the new Commons comes to elect its chair. If David "Daddy-to-Be" Cameron tells Burns to hold fire, the Chelmsford West bruiser has a plan B. He will run for deputy speaker. "I would be," Burns was overheard saying, "the deputy from hell."

"I am the daughter of working-class Italian immigrants," Gloria De Piero wrote on her CV for the Labour candidacy in Ashfield, Nottinghamshire. Twice. It worked. The former GMTV presenter, who came 85th in FHM's 2008 list of the World's Sexiest Women, won the ballot to succeed the rather less glamorous would-be lobbyist Geoff "Buff" Hoon. She was once known as "Tony Blair's favourite broadcaster", but it seems the ex-PM is not quite as popular with her. On her CV she also cited interviews (for this magazine) with Gordon Brown, Alan Johnson and Ed Balls. One name absent from the two pages was Blair.

Cash-strapped Labour is charging hacks £13,000 to sit on a bus to follow Brown during the election. The price smacks of an unsubtle subsidy. Fleet Street is revolting, if you know what I mean. There is talk of a boycott.

The Tory union-basher Michael Gove was a serial striker in his younger days. A snap of the trainee hack on a picket line outside the Press and Journal in Aberdeen two decades ago isn't the only evidence of Red Mike's militancy. A snout recalls Gove downing pens at the BBC in 1994. During unrest at Auntie, he was despatched by union officials to persuade other right-wingers to join the walkouts. By all accounts, he was effective. Up the Tories!

The target of Gove's recent anti-union blasts, Charlie Whelan, evaded the Tory tabloids by tweeting that he had been fishing when the British Airways strike started. But that very same day my spy observed a Whelan-like bloke in Unite House, the union's London office. Fishing for parliamentary seats, perhaps.

Laura Moffatt, MP for Crawley, had her majority at the last election -- 37 -- tattooed on an ankle. Quitting has its upside. Before deciding to step down, fiftysomething Moffatt had originally planned, if she won this time around, to get another tattoo. On her bottom.

Kevin Maguire is associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

 

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Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

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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.