PMQs review: Cameron profits from Labour's pensions move

The PM's framing of the party as soft on welfare but tough on pensioners is dangerous for Miliband and Balls.

It was the unending struggle between David Cameron and Ed Balls that defined today's PMQs. After the shadow chancellor revealed at the weekend that pensions would be included in Labour's welfare cap, Tory MPs set the PM up to deliver attack after attack on Labour for targeting those who've "worked hard all their lives". As Balls furiously pointed out, the party has pledged to keep the "triple lock" on pensions, but Cameron seized on Douglas Alexander's statement that this was their policy "at present" (the standard formulation used by shadow ministers) to declare that Labour would "cut the pension". That Cameron is now able to claim as much, however implausibly, is dangerous for Balls and Miliband. As the PM knows well, It is the over-65s who are the most likely age group to vote (76 per cent did in 2010, compared to 65 per cent of the total population). Cameron is now framing Labour as the party that wants to "protect welfare [it has refused to support the £26,000 benefit cap in its current form], punish hardworkers and punish pensioners." 

Cameron launched another rhetorical assault on Balls later in the session when he declared that the shadow chancellor's statement that the last Labour government did not spend too much "will be hung around his neck forever", describing it as "the most important quote in the last 10 years of politics." For the Tories, Balls's and Miliband's refusal to "apologise" for overspending gives them the opening they need to claim that Labour has "learned nothing" from the crash. 

The exchanges between Cameron and Miliband - on Syria and living standards - were less memorable but highlighted the significant division that has opened up between the two parties on arming the Syrian rebels. Miliband asked the PM: "given that Russia is prepared to send more arms to the Syrian government, does the Prime Minister think it is at all realistic for that 'tipping strategy' to work?" Cameron replied by insisting that he had "not made a decision to supply the Syrian opposition with weapons" but floundered when asked by Miliband what safeguards had been put in place in the event that he did. With many on the Tory benches as sceptical of Labour of the merits of arming the rebels (81 Conservative MPs signed a motion demanding a vote on the matter), this is likely to become a growing headache for the PM. 

David Cameron and Ed Miliband walk through the Members' Lobby to listen to the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament on May 8, 2013. 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.