Commons Confidential: The incredible shrinking Tories

Plus: Chris “the Jackal” Grayling's party piece.

Chris “the Jackal” Grayling drinks less fizzy water at receptions than it may first appear to the casual observer or lurking photographer hoping to picture the shaven-headed Injustice Secretary enjoying the high life. At the Tory jamboree in Manchester, a snout let me in on the cabinet minister’s secret party piece. The Jackal, whispered the eagle-eyed informant, swiftly pours champagne into a tumbler so that it looks as if he’s sipping abstemiously from a glass of eau de tap, when a quick taste would reveal Pol Roger. Grayling poses in a hairshirt, but the Jackal is, in that old northern phrase, all fur coat and no knickers.

It’s often the little things that tell a big story. Relations between Ed Miliband and Unite remain in deep freeze. The union, I gather, sent a letter of complaint to Iain McNicol, the party’s general secretary, after an apparent discourtesy at Labour’s jamboree. A party apparatchik summoned Miliband and his deputy, Harriet Harman, from the stage when Len McCluskey, Unite’s leader, was called to speak. If the disappearance was intended to prevent Red Ed and Hattie Harperson being linked or snapped with Red Len, I reckon it was a bit late. I’ve heard that the Tories clocked the Labourunion link a while back.

The unreconstructed Beast of Bolsover – the Labour MP and ex-miner Dennis Skinner – was awarded an immaculate “red rating” of 100 in a tatty pack of “Top Trumped by the Unions” cards produced by the Tories. He’ll no doubt wear his score as a badge of honour, as might Ben Bradshaw, who was judged the least left on Miliband’s benches, with a pale-pink rating of 29. The most damning so-called red fact that the desperate Cons could disinter about the Exeter MP was that Armando Iannucci once claimed that @BenPBradshaw’s tweets were “very dull”.

Cameron’s spin doctor Craig Oliver informed me that he isn’t a member of the Tory party. If Cameron can’t persuade his Downing Street mouthpiece to sign up, it’s little wonder that the Tories are Britain’s fastest-shrinking political party, with membership close to half the 253,000 that Dave inherited in 2005. In the unlikely event that the Cons affiliated to the TUC, the right-whingers would be only the ninthlargest trade union.

The matchbox-sizedCommons Speaker, John Bercow, must feel secure in his job, because he’s started to crack jokes about his lack of height. “Three previous speakers were shorter than me,” Bercow told a gathering in his tied apartment. “Or at least they were when beheaded.”

Labour’s Scottish contingent inWestminster has taken to referring to the SNP regime in Edinburgh as the “fish government”: it is run by (say this next bit out loud) Salmond and Sturgeon.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Chris “the Jackal” Grayling making his speech at the 2013 Conservative Party conference. Photo: Getty

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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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.