Which way will Hughes turn on the EMA?

Labour is attempting to persuade the Lib Dem deputy leader to vote against the abolition of the EMA.

The Labour Party will attempt to reverse the Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes into a political corner this afternoon when members of parliament vote on whether the government needs "rethink its decision" to scrap Educational Maintenance Allowances (EMA).

Shadow eduction minister Andy Burnham, who will lead the debate alongside Labour Leader Ed Miliband said, "The language used in the motion has been very carefully worded."

To quote the motion, Labour are, "...calling on the government to rethink its decision on EMA, retaining practical support to improve access to, interest in and participation in further and higher education."

Mr Hughes was quoted in the Times Educational Supplement last weekend as saying, "I've never abstained in my life before the tuition fees debate. If what Labour is saying is a call for the Government to rethink its plans, I will support that."

In contrast to promises made by both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats before the election, EMA, the grant that gives 48% of all 16- to 18-year-olds for staying on at school or college, is due to be scrapped at the end of this academic year.

However, as student protests against the government's action on education continue across London today, all eyes in Westminster will be on Mr Hughes to see whether he will stick to his words.

The Lib Dem Deputy spent the week in his capacity as the government's advocate for further and higher education consulting Burnham who has drafted today's motion.

Labour will be urging as many Liberal Democrats as possible to vote against the government today, however, if such a senior member of the coalition as Mr Hughes joins the opposition in the vote fresh strains will be imposed on the coalition.

Mr Burnham said, "Both Michael Gove and David Cameron specifically promised to keep EMA before the election therefore their plans are a total renege on their commitments.

"The debate today will ask ministers how long do they really want to carry on being lied to?"

Mr Burnham said, "My conversations with Hughes this week have been very constructive and I really believe that he understands the importance of EMA."

When asked whether he think Hughes will vote in favour of Labour's motion Burnham said he couldn't be sure.

Hughes' office told this journalist last night that Labour's careful wording would not succeed in luring the veteran Lib Dem MP into their media trap and that the government will independently reassess their decision to abolish EMA and look for realistic alternatives.

Whether as a face-saving measure or not it seems the coalition have not pulled the plug from EMA - or at least some kind of financial incentivisation for young people to remain in education until the age of 18 - quite yet.

But will anything less than EMA do for Labour or are they just championing this cause celebre to make a media mark?

"This is not about playing party political games," Burnham assures me. "This is about having something of value for young people in Britain. We're open to a healthy debate and understand the coalition are considering alternatives such as free travel."

But he warned, "Since 3400 young people are in receipt of EMA in Mr Hughes' constituency of Bermondsey, he's definitely got cause for concern. About 70% of students at Southwark College get EMA and he'll soon feel the political effects if he goes back on his words."

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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.