Farage blunders as he calls for a "two tier flat tax"

The UKIP surge continues, but don't ask its leader for a coherent tax policy.

With two days to go until the local elections, the UKIP wave shows no signs of receding. The latest YouGov poll puts the party on a record high of 14 per cent, while ComRes has them on 13 per cent. 

The surge in support for Nigel Farage's party means the Tories are prepared for losses well in excess of the 350 seats forecast by election gurus Rallings and Thrasher. The figure of 800 seats that appears in today's Sun can almost certainly be dismissed as expectation management but it's not unreasonable to suggest that the party, which currently holds 26 of the 27 county councils up for election, could lose between 500 and 600. 

A cheery Farage was on the Today programme this morning, happily informing listeners that his party's membership has risen by 50 per cent this calendar year. After another UKIP election candidate was unmasked as an extremist (in this case, Somerset candidate Alex Wood, who is pictured giving a Nazi salute and wielding a knife on the front of today's Daily Mirror), Farage conceded that it "doesn't look very pretty" but insisted that it was just one of "a couple of very bizarre cases".

That doesn’t look very pretty, I agree with you, and we have had, out of our 1,700 candidates, a handful who have embarrassed us, mostly because they simply haven’t told us the truth, but we are the only party in British politics who actually forbid former members of the BNP or extreme organisations from even becoming members of UKIP, let alone candidates and, in one or two cases, people haven’t told us the truth.

He added, however: "We have done what due diligence we can at branch level - if people seemed to be very, very odd we didn’t accept them but we have taken people on faith. We don’t have the resources to trawl through absolutely everybody’s social media sites and that has led to one or two embarrassments."

But it was on the tricky subject of tax policy that Farage came unstuck. After last week distancing himself from his party's general election policy of a 31 per cent flat tax rate, the UKIP leader introduced us to the oxymoronic concept of a "two tier flat tax". One was left with the impression of a man making it up as he goes along (and trying to have it both ways). But for now, ever more appear prepared to come with him. 

UKIP leader Nigel Farage speaks at the party's 2013 Spring Conference in the Great Hall, Exeter University. 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.