Nigel Farage meets locals and party officials during a visit on April 23, 2014 in Yarm. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Farage looks like a bottler - and he only has himself to blame

After foolishly boasting that victory in the Newark by-election would force David Cameron to resign, the Ukip leader marched his troops back down the hill. 

Having marched his troops to the top of the hill, Nigel Farage has just marched them down back down again. After stoking speculation that he would stand in the Newark by-election by boasting last night that David Cameron would have to resign if he won, the Ukip leader has just told the BBC that he won't be running after all. He said outside his home in Bath: 

It was only 12 hours ago that Patrick Mercer stood down, so I haven't had long to think about it, but I have thought about it, and we're just over three weeks away from a European election at which I think Ukip could cause an earthquake in British politics, from which we can go on and win not just one parliamentary seat but quite a lot of parliamentary seats.

For that reason, I don't want to do anything that deflects from the European election campaign, so I'm not going to stand in this by-election.

I want to focus the next three weeks on winning the European elections and also I don't have any links with the East Midlands. I would just look like an opportunist, and I don't think that would work.

Were he being honest, Farage would have admitted that there was one big reason why he chose not to stand: he feared he would lose. The Tories currently enjoy a majority of 16,152 in Newark and a lead of 25,636 over Ukip (which polled 3.8 per cent in 2010). Even with the momentum that would follow victory in the European elections, overcoming that deficit would have been a daunting challenge. Ukip briefed this morning that it fears the elderly, middle-class Conservative vote is "solid", and it is almost certainly right. 

Farage made the right call. But having allowed, and even encouraged, speculation to run out of control, he has been unavoidably damaged this morning. There was no need for him to boast that he was powerful enough to topple Cameron, or to declare that winning a Westminster seat would "transform the landscape" for Ukip. He could simply have told reporters that he would "sleep on it" and decide in the morning. 

Farage may well still lead Ukip to a remarkable victory on 22 May (indeed, the polls suggest he is almost certain to). But right now the politician he most resembles is Gordon Brown after the election that never was in 2007. For the first time in weeks, Ukip's momentum has stalled. 

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.