Why, despite everything, the Lib Dems are still set to win Eastleigh

A new poll from Lord Ashcroft putting the Lib Dems five points ahead in the by-election shows that local issues continue to take precedence over national ones.

After one of the worst weekends of press coverage for the Lib Dems in recent history, the party will be relieved that it is still on course to win in Eastleigh on Thursday. The final poll of the campaign, conducted by Lord Ashcroft (profiled by Andrew Gimson in this week's NS), puts the Lib Dems on 33 per cent (+2), five points ahead of the Tories, who are down to six points to 28 per cent, with UKIP in third place on 21 per cent (+8) and Labour a distant fourth on 12 per cent (-7). The fieldwork took place between Friday and Sunday, so after the Rennard story broke, although it is worth noting that the most damaging front pages for the party didn't appear until Monday following Clegg's admission that he was aware of "indirect and non-specific concerns" about the Lib Dem peer. 

But even with this proviso, it appears unlikely that the scandal will swing the contest in the Tories' favour. The reason, as I suggested yesterday, is that local issues continue to take precedence over national ones. Ashcroft's poll shows that the most important factor in determining how people will vote is "getting the best local MP". Nearly half of all voters (45 per cent) and 65 per cent of Lib Dems cite this as the main influence on their decision. Significantly, then, the Lib Dems enjoy a 19-point lead on "understanding the Eastleigh constituency and representing local people in parliament", with 40 per cent of all voters and 90 per cent of Lib Dems awarding them this accolade. 

Also in the Lib Dems' favour is that a majority of voters (55 per cent), including 47 per cent of Conservative supporters, say that they expect the party to win, a factor that, as Ashcroft suggests, may heighten the attraction of "a nothing-to-lose vote for UKIP". But few ever got rich betting on by-elections, and the poll shows that the potential for an upset remains; a total of 27 per cent of voters remain undecided. The Tories, for whom defeat would be written up as a humiliating failure (even if, as the poll suggests, voters are unmoved by the Huhne and Rennard scandals), have every incentive to fight to the death. 

Nick Clegg and Liberal Democrat Eastleigh by-election candidate Mike Thornton visit the Ageas Bowl - home of Hampshire Cricket Club. 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.