PMQs review: Miliband edges a stale contest

The Labour leader found his stride after declaring that Cameron was "a PR man who can't even do a relaunch".

The first PMQs of the year was a rather unenlightening affair, with both David Cameron and Ed Miliband falling back on their stock attack lines. Miliband accused Cameron of breaking his promises on the economy and the NHS, Cameron accused Miliband of having no plan to reduce the deficit or to reform welfare.

The revelation in today's Telegraph that a government audit of coalition pledges was held back to prevent "difficult points" overshadowing "favourable coverage" of the coalition's Mid-Term Review gave Miliband an easy way in. But the Labour leader initially struggled to draw blood. Rather than pinning Cameron down on detail (as he could have done over the Welfare Uprating Bill), Miliband's questions allowed the Prime Minister to reiterate the coalition's superficially impressive record: the deficit has been reduced by a quarter (but only at the cost of pushing the economy back into recession), immigration has been reduced by a quarter (another policy that has strangled growth) and a million new private sector jobs have been created (196,000 of which were simply reclassified from the public sector).

Cameron went on to perform his own "audit" of Miliband's promises, declaring that he had failed to deliver on his commitments to offer a credible deficit reduction plan, "proper reform of welfare" and a new policy on tuition fees. It was cheap politics (Miliband has never promised this level of detail before 2015) but it roused the Tory backbenches. Miliband countered stongly, however, with his best line of the session: "he's a PR man who can't even do a relaunch." He went on to declare that "the nasty party is back", an attempt to capitalise at the unease among some Conservatives at George Osborne's strivers/scroungers dividing line. Cameron replied that Miliband has "a shadow chancellor who he won't back but can't sack", an attempt to stoke speculation about Ed Balls's position after David Miliband's bravura speech on the welfare bill, viewed by some as a job application for the shadow chancellorship.

The Prime Minister left one notable hostage to fortune in the session. In response to a question on fox hunting, Cameron replied: "I have never broken the law and the only little red pests I pursue are in this House." That line is an invitation to every journalist in the country to identify occasions on which he may well have broken the law. As Cameron once conceded, "I did things when I was young that I shouldn't have done."

Ed Miliband declared at today's Prime Minister's Questions that "the nasty party is back". 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.