The Tories have decided that the Lib Dem playbook is the one with the right answers

Restoring the minimum wage to its pre-crash level is the perfect encapsulation of a "stronger economy, fairer society" policy.

Apparently there is wailing and gnashing of teeth going on amongst my Westminster Lib Dem betters over the Damascene conversion of the Chancellor not only to the principle of the minimum wage, but to the need for a large rise in its level. It seems the general view is that George has nicked a Lib Dem policy, announced his opinion without telling anyone in general (or Vince Cable, whose purview this falls under, in particular), and that he hasn’t been playing fair. "It wasn’t even on the Downing St. grid" goes the cry. Like we‘ve never done that…

It seems to me that they are missing a trick. Let’s stop moaning. Let’s celebrate the fact that, apparently, the Chancellor has decided that he agrees with Nick (or at the very least, Vince). Having spent two years banging the "stronger economy, fairer society" drum, the Chancellor has now presented us with a brilliant opportunity to prove our case. Restoring the minimum wage to its pre-crash level is the perfect encapsulation of a "stronger economy, fairer society" policy. As is raising the tax threshold, another policy that the Tories said couldn’t happen because we can’t afford it, but now seem keen to try and take the credit for.

When Nick claimed that there would be no economic recovery without the Lib Dems what he really meant was that the support of the Lib Dems had allowed a UK government to get more done than any of the alternative results from the 2010 election. But now the Tories seem set on also telling the world that they agree with a stream of Lib Dem policies there’s some economic policy meat in that lobby fodder sandwich. The party of economic competence has decided that the Lib Dem playbook is the one with the right answers. Much more of this, and the Tories will be claiming that the Mansion Tax is not only a thoroughly good idea, but that they’ve backed it from the word go.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Vince Cable speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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.