Philip Hammond caught out after claiming living standards are rising

The Defence Secretary is forced to admit: "I haven’t got a specific measure I can quote."

While David Cameron changed tack at PMQs today and admitted that living standards are falling (but that Labour was to blame), it seems that Philip Hammond didn't get the message. The Defence Secretary told The Daily Politics:

I think living standards are starting to rise again after what has been a very, very difficult period with a huge reduction in our national income. I think everybody in this country understands that if our national income contracts by 7.5 per cent that has an impact on living standards.

But when challenged by Andrew Neil to name "any measure" that showed this, he was forced to concede:

I haven’t got a specific measure I can quote. But what’s happening is we are seeing a recovery in the economy, we’re seeing people benefitting from the measures that we’ve taken to increase the tax free personal allowance, to freeze council tax, to freeze fuel duties, so that those pressures on living standards where the government does have some direct ability are being managed. And, as the economy starts to grow again, we will see living standards continuing to recover.

The exchange continued:

AN:  Oh, continuing to recover, so you say they’re recovering, so by what measure are you using to justify the claim that living standards are now rising.

PH: Well, as our national incomes rise again, living standards will rise.

From "living standards are starting to rise" to "living standards will rise" in just one minute.

Unfortunately for the Tories, even under George Osborne's preferred measure of Real Household Disposable Income, which includes the incomes of charities and universities (and as the IFS warned, "should certainly not be used in isolation to measure how they [living standards] are changing"), living standards are forecast to fall this year. And even once they start to rise, they still almost certainly be below their 2010 level at the time of the general election.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this year. 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.