Clegg must speak up against web snooping

It is Clegg, not David Davis, who should be leading the liberal charge.

What should be giving the Lib Dem leadership pause for thought today is how the grassroots of the party found it all too easy to believe that reports of the new internet snooping legislation were 100 per cent accurate.

How have we come to the point when a report of a potential assault on our civil liberties is greeted by howls of anguish from party members who automatically presume that some back room deal has been done by "the quad. We steel ourselves for the speeches "positioning" the change as a "careful balancing act" between protecting civil liberties and "the safety of the nation". We await reports of the off-the-record briefing reminding everyone that even unanimous motions passed at conference are not binding on a government in power.

It's not helped that while David Davis leads the liberal charge, we get the odd blog post reminding everyone that it's not yet clear exactly what is being proposed. There should be a Lib Dem leader out there intoning the words of the coalition agreement:

"We will implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and state intrusion".

Nothing less will do. And don't give me any of the "we don't comment on rumours'"nonsense. Two years ago, Nick was willing to go to jail to defend civil liberties. What's wrong with saying that again? Today?

There is, it seems, an increasing gulf between the party members and the leadership. First on tuition fees, then the NHS, now this. Even if these rumours are nonsense and the reports hopelessly inaccurate, the fact that Lib Dem members all over the country assumed it to be true speaks volumes for how distant the leadership seems from the grass roots.

The Lib Dem members of the government need to reconnect with the base of the party. We need to know that every word of the motion on civil liberties passed by conference just three weeks ago will be followed.

Currently, the silence is deafening.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference.

There is an increasing gulf between Lib Dem members and the party leadership. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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.