Clegg's narrow victory on the 50p tax rate shows how divided the Lib Dems are

Lib Dem delegates voted by a majority of just four (224-220) not to pledge to reintroduce the 50p rate as Clegg and Farron divided.

After his victories on nuclear power, tuition fees and 'Osbornomics', Nick Clegg's winning streak has continued. In line with the leadership's position, Lib Dem delegates have just voted not to reintroduce the 50p tax rate and to maintain the 45p rate, albeit by a margin of just four (224-220).

While party president Tim Farron had called in my interview with him for the party to back the higher rate both to raise additional revenue and to demonstrate that "we are all in it together", Clegg said this morning: "To drive home the message of tax reform I think changing one very specific symbolic tax rate is not really the key part of the matter." The key intervention in the debate came from Vince Cable, who reminded delegates that the party's previous policy was to support a 40p rate alongside a mansion tax and argued that excessively high taxes on income could have negative economic effects.

Had the party voted to back the 50p rate it would have been an unambiguous assertion of its centre-left character, but the result will be seen as an acceptance of the more economically liberal path pursued by Clegg. (Although it is worth remembering that the party previously voted to abandon support for the 50p rate under Ming Campbell's leadership in 2006.) But the narrowness of the victory shows how divided the Lib Dems remain about their ideological direction. While Orange Bookers such as David Laws and Jeremy Browne would probably like to see the top rate reduced to 40p, Farron and the party's left have demonstrated the support that exists for a more social democratic approach.

Should the Lib Dems be presented with a choice of coalition partner after the next election, with both Labour and the Tories winning enough seats to form majority governments with their support, it is these two groups that will be pitted against each other in a battle for the party's soul.

Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron, who called for the party to support the reintroduction of the 50p tax rate. 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.