Lord Ashcroft is right to warn the Tories not to bang on about Europe

Just six per cent of voters regard the EU as one of the most "important issues" facing Britain.

In his first conference speech as Conservative leader, David Cameron memorably told his party to stop "banging on" about Europe. Lord Ashcroft, the former Conservative deputy chairman, billionaire party donor and prolific pollster, has just warned him to remember this injunction if he wants to win the next election (on which his hopes of a renegotiation, followed by a referendum, rest). 

In an article for ConservativeHome, the site he co-owns, Ashcroft writes: 

The principal benefit of our referendum policy is not that it gives our campaign a headline; it is that it allows us to put the issue to rest and move the conversation on to what the voters want to discuss. Europe is important and we have a clear view about it. That does not mean we should allow it to top our agenda, or look as though it does. Few things would please Ed Miliband more.

Tories must remember that we can only get what we want once we win an election. The more we talk about changing our relationship with Europe, the less likely it is to happen.

As so often, Ashcroft's analysis is spot-on. While voters share the Tories' euroscepticism, they do not share their obsession with the subject. Polling by Ipsos MORI (see above) regularly shows that fewer than 10 per cent of voters regard the EU as one of the most "important issues facing Britain". Its most recent survey found that, even after the media attention devoted to the subject in recent months, just two per cent of voters regard the EU as "the most important issue" facing the UK today and just four per cent regard it as another "important issue". 

Cameron knows and understands all of the above. One of the aims of his speech was to settle the debate, calm his restive backbenchers and move on. Whether his MPs allow him to do so remains to be seen. 

Former Conservative deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft warned the Tories that the more they talked about Europe the less likely they were to win the election. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

GETTY
Show Hide image

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.