David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The opportunity for Cameron to avoid the TV debates is growing

The more parties, broadcasters and papers pile in, the greater the danger of a non-agreement. 

If David Cameron was confident that he would win the TV debates, he would have already signed up for them. That he is not even willing to begin negotiations until October is evidence that he is reserving the option to avoid them. By the same measure, Ed Miliband would not be pushing for an agreement if he did not believe that he would emerge the victor. 

It is the fear that the debates would advantage one or more of his opponents that explains Cameron's hesistancy. Labour figures rightly regard them as an opportunity for Miliband to speak directly to the country, unmediated by a hostile press, and as a means of countering the Tories' financial advantage. Having performed credibly against Cameron at PMQs in his three-and-a-half years as leader of the opposition, they are confident that Miliband would surpass expectations. As the papers demonise him as the most dangerous man in Britain, voters may warm to the moderate figure who wants to freeze their energy bill and build more homes. It is Cameron, as both the Tories and Labour recognise, who has the most to lose. 

The latest attempt to inject momentum into the discussions is a joint proposal by the Guardian, the Telegraph and YouTube to host an online debate. The aim is to engage young viewers for whom the internet is the main source of news and who are alienated by traditional broadcasters. It is a worthy one. But by adding a new element to the negotiations (and encouraging others to make similar proposals) it increases the possibility that Cameron will find an excuse to avoid them altogether. A Miliband source told me: "This shows why we need the talks to begin now, with 3-3-3 as our starting point." 

Both Labour and the Lib Dems regard a repeat of the format used last time - three debates between three party leaders over three weeks - as their best hope of securing an agreement. Cameron's alternative proposal of a "2-3-5" format with a head-to-head debate between himself and Miliband (before the campaign proper begins), another with the addition of Nick Clegg, and another with the addition of Nigel Farage and the Greens' Natalie Bennett is regarded with suspicion as an attempt to muddy the waters. As Labour's Michael Dugher has pointed out: "It’s nonsensical for Cameron to say he wants to start the debates early, but the negotiations late." 

The more parties, broadcasters and papers pile in, the greater the chance that Cameron will eventually announce with faux sincerity that "We tried really hard, we really did, but it just hasn't been possible to reach an agreement." 

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.