Cameron puts his privatisation plan on hold

The PM’s pledge to open up almost all of the public sector to private providers is in danger.

Earlier this year, David Cameron made a pledge of quite startling radicalism. In an article for the Daily Telegraph, the Prime Minister vowed to open up almost all of the public sector – bar national defence and the judiciary – to private and voluntary providers.

"The state," Cameron wrote, "will have to justify why it should ever operate as a monopoly." Through the creation of a "new presumption" in favour of a range of providers, the PM would go further and faster than Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair ever did.

A white paper on open services, we were told, would soon follow. As Cameron wrote: "We will soon publish a white paper setting out our approach to public service reform. It will put in place principles that will signal the decisive end of the old-fashioned, top-down, take-what-you're-given model of public services."

But since the article was published on 20 February, we've heard almost nothing, with no sign of a white paper. Now, in the face of opposition from the Liberal Democrats, Cameron has retreated even further. Today's Financial Times reports that the white paper is unlikely to be published until mid-July, while Paul Waugh suggests that it may never see the light of day at all.

However, it's not hard to see why Cameron has rediscovered the virtues of caution. The pledge to open up the NHS to "any qualified provider" has toxified Andrew Lansley's reforms, while the near-collapse of Southern Cross, the company responsible for 750 care homes, is a timely reminder of the limits of the market.

The Lib Dems, to their credit, have declared that enough is enough. Nick Clegg is determined to resist anything that paves the way for the wholesale privatisation of services.

But many in Cameron's party will see this as further evidence of the PM's diminished ambition. The government's free schools agenda, they warn, will be stillborn unless schools are allowed to make a profit. The tuition fees plan, they complain, was robbed of its coherence by implacable Lib Dems. The same fate, they fear, will now befall the government's NHS reforms.

Cameron's latest reversal will only encourage the view that he is a Heath, not a Thatcher.

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.