Will George Osborne really make those 25 per cent cuts?

Michael Portillo warns Chancellor that extra tax rises may be needed to take the strain off cuts.

The most significant moment in George Osborne's Budget came when the Chancellor confirmed that he will cut spending on all non-protected departments (everything except Health and International Development) by 25 per cent on average. We won't get the full details until the spending review in October but that figure is chilling enough on its own.

Osborne told the House that he recognised the "particular pressures" on education and defence, a clear suggestion that spending in these areas will not be cut by that amount. But concessions for some means even more pain elsewhere. How would our substandard transport system cope with cuts of say 30 per cent?

It is for such reasons that some Tory figures are starting to doubt whether it will be either desirable or possible for Osborne to cut spending by this amount.

Michael Portillo, once chief secretary to the Treasury, has said he is "highly sceptical" that Osborne will maintain his plan to reduce the deficit through a 77:23 ratio of spending cuts to tax rises. He predicts that the coalition will revert to something like the 50:50 split adopted by Ken Clarke during the last major period of fiscal retrenchment in the 1990s.

Even the Economist, which endorsed the Tories at the election, has called for a more balanced apporach:

The Tories have said they want to rely on taxes for a fifth of the consolidation. That may be too ambitious. If something like 2 per cent of GDP were found by higher taxes, leaving spending to be cut by 5 per cent of GDP, it would still be a tougher mix than all but two of the ten biggest OECD deficit-cutters managed.

I expect once the cuts start hurting their constituents, a significant number of Tory MPs will feel the same way.

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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.