PMQs review: Cameron sends the Tories away happy as he triumphs over Miliband

Labour MPs were left glum-faced as Cameron delivered his strongest performance for months.

Ahead of the summer recess, both David Cameron and Ed Miliband needed a win at today's PMQs to send their troops away happy and it was Cameron who rose to the occasion, delivering his strongest performance for months. The longer the session went on, the more confident he seemed to grow, quipping that he longer needed Lynton Crosby's advice to "defeat a divided and useless Labour Party" and advising Miliband to "move the two people next to you [Ed Balls and Andy Burnham] and...do it fast." 

Miliband had begun by challenging Cameron on NHS staffing levels in response to yesterday's Keogh report but a well-briefed Cameron pointed out that eight of the 11 hospitals placed in special measures now had more nurses than in 2010 and that 10 had more clinical staff. A somewhat deflated Miliband then questioned Cameron over Lynton Crosby and plan cigarette packaging but, once again, the PM had come well-armed. Declaring that the decision was made by him and Jeremy Hunt alone, he noted that the last Labour government had taken the same view and produced a letter from Andy Burnham to Tessa Jowell noting that "no studies have shown that introducing plain packaging would cut the number of young people smoking". 

He again dodged Miliband's question on whether he had ever had a conversation with Crosby on cigarette packaging, merely stating that he had never been "lobbied" by him, but swiftly returned fire by pointing out that Miliband had predicted that unemployment "would get worse, not better" this year. "Isn't it time he withdraws that and admits he was wrong!", he cried. 

Miliband squeezed in a neat dig about Cameron being "the PM for Benson and hedge funds" but Cameron, brimming with confidence, ended with a flourish of rare force: 

We are getting to an end of a political session where the deficit is down, unemployment is down, crime is falling, welfare is capped, Abu Qatada is back in Jordan ... every day this country is getting stronger and every day he is getting weaker.

As the Tory benches cried "more! more!, Labour MPs looked on glum-faced.

Cameron's rollcall of achievements was an apt summary of why the Tories believe the political tide has turned in their favour. An economic recovery finally appears to be underway and the public has tolerated, rather than revolted against austerity. As Cameron noted, it is now February since Miliband asked a full set of questions about the economy. The fear among Labour MPs was always that their party's poll lead owed more to distaste for the coalition than it did to enthusiasm for them. Now, as growth returns, the danger is that it will crumble. 

David Cameron attends a press conference after the European Union leaders summit on June 28, 2013 at the EU headquarters in Brussels. 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.