PMQs Sketch: Balls's silence is deafening

Dave seizes economic initiative after the two Eds u-turn

It will be of little comfort to the 2.68m people who found themselves on the dole this week to discover that the most noteworthy event that happened whilst their fate was being discussed at Prime Ministers Questions was that the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Ed Balls said nothing. In fact to be absolutely accurate he not only said nothing but he waved nothing bristled nothing and grimaced nothing at the same time. Some might argue so what since PMQs is the stage for the weekly clash between present incumbent Dave and the alter-Ed Miliband. But the great delight to observers of the 19 months of PMQs since the Coalition came to power has been the quality, volume and quantity of noises oft generated by Ed the-slightly-lesser from his seat on Labour's benches. Doubts continue to exist about the performance and future of Ed M but until today the conduct of Ed B was enough to guarantee the discomfort of the PM and the regular displaying of his Flashman tendencies to the horror of his spinners.

As the leaders faced each other down with the latest clever phrase or killer question Ed B would be down at ankle level nipping and biting Dave in that bruiser behaviour he had honed whilst employed as Gordon Brown's chief bully boy. He even developed his own system of semaphore to disconcert Dave as he tried to formulate his answers. Indeed Dave paid his finest compliment by describing him as "the most annoying person in modern politics". So why the change? Because at the weekend the Eds let it be known that they are no longer against the cuts. Well they are against the cuts but they are not going reverse them.

This less than clear statement of their position has left some of their supporters confused and others, including the unions, hopping mad. This particular relaunch, possibly the third this month, followed a spate of opinion polls showing Dave, despite the economic disasters of the past 18 months, still streets ahead of Labour on the "who would you trust with the economy" scale not to mention the fact that up to 70 per cent of Labour voters can't see Ed M inside Number 10 on anything other than a day trip.

Having failed to get anywhere in the short term, if 19 months can be described as short term, the two Eds have now decided that the next three years must be devoted to proving they can be trusted with whatever few pounds remain in the economy. Ed M is also desperate to show he is not in the pocket of the trade unions he so assiduously courted to win power.

So it was against this background that despite the worst unemployment figures for 17 years, Tory MPs gathered in the House of Commons chamber and cheered as the Labour leader rose to attempt to skewer Dave. The Prime Minister now attends these functions looking as if he has doused himself in sun lotion to further his escape is anyone does manage to get a hand on him. But even as he tried to tie Dave down to responsibility for the latest jobs crisis it was clear Ed was failing to get a grip.

Everyone knew it was only time before Dave got in the counter attack. "What he needs to do is change course", said Ed who established that if unemployment went up further that would seem to be the fault of the Office of Budget Responsibility now clearly renamed the Office for Responsibility for the Budget if Dave is to be believed. But all of that fell flat against his charge that the Labour leader had marched against the cuts last year and now was in favour of them.

"He's an expert in changing course", said the PM, glistening with pleasure. Meanwhile Ed B sat silent in his heckle free zone. 2.68m unemployed suddenly plus 1.

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.