PMQs sketch: Grilled Miliband followed sautéed Clegg

The PM could not believe how he has gone from zero to hero without any planning.

Unemployment in the UK fell by one this morning when the Deputy Prime Minister came out of hiding and returned to his main job of being the present most people don't want for Christmas.

That is not to say he was not welcomed at the final Prime Ministers Questions of the year, since MPs on all sides of the house were more than happy to snack on him before heading off for more fulsome seasonal fare.

Indeed the volume of the welcome following his decision to go on the run just 48 hours ago might have been pleasing had he not noticed the increased sound was coming from the knives being sharpened all around him.

So it was unsurprising that as he finally took his traditional place next to the Prime Minister he kept looking nervously about him. But he need not have worried because sautéed Clegg had been taken off the menu to be replaced by grilled Miliband.

It had not meant to be this way following Dave's Churchillian gesture last Friday to everyone without a UK passport. Even on Monday, with Nick Clegg cowering under his desk, Ed M and his advisors thought they were heading into the Christmas recess with the Coalition in disarray and its leadership daggers drawn over Europe.

But what they had not counted on was the pulling power of power itself, and that insults could fly and feet could be stamped but not stamped out of office.

What they also had not counted on was the public's support for Dave's two fingers to everything foreign. As PMQs began it was clear that Tory MPs were pleased enough to eat themselves never mind Nick Clegg and they were more than happy to add Ed M to the menu.

The Prime Minister ,who cannot believe how he has gone from zero to hero without any planning ,was equally at home in a place where so often he has had to resort to decibels rather than debate to get him through the half hour. Indeed so confident was he that his minder Chancellor George took time out to move down the Government front bench for a bit of pre-Christmas gossip with Cabinet colleagues.

With the worst unemployment figures for 17 years the Labour leader was on relatively safe ground as he reminded the PM that his Christmas message a year ago had been about jobs ."What went wrong? "he said.

In PMQs past Dave's collar would already been tightening around his neck producing those wonderful autumnal hues so associated with an out-of-depth Prime Minister.

But there was none of that today as he turned to his now adoring back benchers and announced he would not take any lectures from Labour.

And then Ed turned to Europe. On the surface the clash between Lib-Dems and Tories in the Coalition over Europe would appear to be rich pickings for Labour. But this assumes that Labour has a position on Europe that is both agreed and popular and neither of these are true. Indeed the whole sub-text of today's PMQs could be found in two opinion polls published this morning which were carried out AFTER Cameron wielded his veto.

Both polls put the Tories two points ahead of Labour for the first time since December 2010 and show majority support for the PM over Europe. Even though they were never raised the existence of these extra elephants were enough to un-nerve Ed and give Dave a rare win. As Labour slumped and Lib-Dems slumped further the PM looked as if he would lick himself if he could. There is a real poll going on today in the Feltham and Heston constituency just west of London where Labour is defending a 4000 majority from the general election.

Nineteen months into this parliament with record unemployment, the worst economic crisis for 80 years and at loggerheads with Europe, Dave should be up to his throat in it leaving Ed with the rewards.

Watch this space.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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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.