Nigel Farage still doesn't know UKIP's policies - but don't expect it to damage him

It is precisely the UKIP leader's flippancy and his lack of formality that voters find endearing.

Nigel Farage was treated to a classic dismantling by Andrew Neil on The Daily Politics today. Asked if UKIP was against replacing Trident, he replied: "I'm not sure where you got that from", to which Neil deadpanned: "from your website". Questioned on whether he still wanted a "compulsory dress code for taxi drivers", he answered: "do we? News to me". Asked whether it was still party policy to require trains to be "repainted in traditional colours", he responded: "I've never read that, I've no idea what you're talking about." Challenged on how the party could possibly afford its pledge to cut taxes by £90bn and increase spending by £30bn, he mused: "let's see". 

The Tories, who are stepping up their rebuttal of UKIP, have pounced on the clip as evidence that Farage is "simply not credible". But even if we ignore his vow to relaunch all UKIP policy after the European elections ("none of it stands today"), it is doubtful that such incidents damage him. It is precisely Farage's flippancy and his lack of formality ("when it comes to websites, I'm not the expert") that voters find endearing. All that the public, who pay far less attention to policy than most imagine, need to know is that UKIP stands against the Westminster establishment, against immigration, against "human rights", against overseas aid and against the EU. With no expectation that it will hold any significant power after 2015, voters have little interest in its stance on fiscal policy or defence. 

If Farage wants UKIP to eventually become something bigger than a protest party, he will not be able to afford such gaffes. But for now, they merely add to his lustre. 

Nigel Farage speaks at a fringe event at the Conservative conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

GETTY
Show Hide image

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.