Farage says that "a couple of dozen" Tory MPs would be open to pacts with UKIP

The UKIP leader's figure is "spot on", says Conservative MP Philip Hollobone.

Nigel Farage is doing his best to steal the limelight from George Osborne today with a stringe of fringe appearances outside the Conservative secure zone. He quipped to cheers at one event: "If Godfrey Bloom disrupted my conference, I like to think I'm disrupting and ruining David Cameron's."

But it was on Radio 4 earlier today that Farage's most notable comments came. After reaffirming his support for local non-aggression pacts between Tory and UKIP candidates in today's Times, he told the World At One that he estimated that "a couple of dozen" Conservative MPs would be open to agreement. Tory MP Philip Hollobone, who won the backing of UKIP in 2010, went on to describe Farage's figure as "spot on".

Conservative ministers have done their best to play down talk of deals today, but Farage's comments are a reminder of why the idea won't go way, particularly if UKIP win the European elections next year, or at least outperform the Tories. At a fractious fringe meeting with Farage earlier today, Bill Cash warned that UKIP could cost the Tories up to 60 seats and hand Ed Miliband the keys to Downing Street. "Let us be realistic. Are we going to be allies or enemies? Lay off our marginals," he said.

While UKIP is unlikely to inflict as much damage on the Tories as Cash fears, the split in the right-wing vote (UKIP draws around half of its support from 2010 Tory supporters), will make it easier for Labour to dislodge the Tories in the marginals it needs to win to become the largest party. At the last election, with a UKIP share of just 3 per cent, there were 20 constituencies in which the party's vote exceeded the Labour majority (one shouldn't make the error of assuming that all those who supported the party would have backed the Tories in its absence, but many would have done). Should UKIP poll at least 5-6%, around half of its current support, it could well indirectly propel Labour to victory. And that is why talk of pacts will continue right up until May 2015.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage addresses the Bruges Group in Manchester Town Hall earlier today. 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.