Cameron defends "intense" conversation with Rebekah Brooks

Prime Minister says: "My wife’s cousin had a party and I went, it’s not a big deal."

More than a few eyebrows were raised after it was reported that David Cameron held an "intense" conversation with Rebekah Brooks at a party in Chipping Norton shortly before Christmas. But challenged on the subject on Radio 5 Live this morning, Cameron made light of the meeting: "My wife’s cousin had a party and I went, it’s not a big deal. What really matters is the country and the decisions that are taken."

He added: "I am very focused on the job I do, it is a hugely fulfilling job and an enormous opportunity and a great honour to have this job.

"But it is a difficult time for Britain and I try and do this job in a way that I am levelling with people about the difficulties we face and not pretending it is easy when it isn’t.

"We do face difficult years, people have seen that when their wage packets haven't been going up, the challenges in terms of cost of living.

"I think there are important problems and challenges for this country to get on and get over, I think this government is helping them to do that."

After news of the encounter emerged, Ed Miliband declared at Prime Minister's Questions: "We know who this Prime Minister stands up for, because where was he last weekend? Back to his old ways, partying with Rebekah Brooks, no doubt both looking forward to the Boxing Day hunt".

Brooks was recently revealed to have secured an £11m pay-off when she resigned as chief executive of News International, including the use of office space in Marylebone and the services of company employees for two years. She is due to stand trial on 9 September over charges of phone-hacking and perverting the course of justice.

David Cameron with former Sun editor and News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.