David Cameron launches the Conservative Party's European and local election campaign durng a speech at JCB World Logistics Centre. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Tories dismiss Labour as anti-business. Cameron must be wary of seeming anti-everyone else

The moment when Cameron could bring himself to worry aloud about inequality has passed.

Ed Miliband’s distaste for British capitalism is a source of frequent comfort to the Tories. When the Labour leader talks about intervening in rogue markets, David Cameron hears the crackle of flames consuming the opposition’s economic credibility. He believes that Labour’s litany of private-sector targets (banks, payday lenders, letting agents, energy companies), combined with the intention to tax mansions and squeeze top salaries, creates the impression of a party that hates profit and wealth.

The Tories think Miliband’s success in naming economic villains will be cancelled out by his failure to describe a plan for prosperity. Labour’s warning that the recovery will not ease the crisis in living standards is dismissed as another iffy jeremiad, to be filed alongside a triple-dip recession and 1930s-style unemployment as things the opposition called wrong.

Most Labour MPs are confident that their leader has diagnosed Britain’s economic malaise correctly; many worry that not enough voters are looking to him as a purveyor of solutions. In their constituencies they find little excitement about the prospect of a Miliband government. There is no enthusiasm for another term under Cameron but inertia favours incumbency.

Miliband has plenty of academic support for his argument that unfair distribution of wealth is the defining issue of the age. London’s left-wing intelligentsia is skim-reading Capital in the 21st Century, a much-hyped study of the deleterious effects of inequality by the French economist Thomas Piketty. Labour also takes heart from a new egalitarian strain in US politics, in evidence from Bill de Blasio’s victory in last year’s New York mayoral contest with a populist left campaign targeting the city’s plutocrats and Barack Obama’s warnings that America’s middle class fears perpetual decline.

Gratifying though it may be for Labour to feel part of an intellectual trend, the association has limited currency in a campaign. More useful would be support from prominent British capitalists. It is not too far-fetched to imagine some enlightened entrepreneur making the case for decent wages, secure employment rights and paying taxes. Miliband’s allies insist that such a constituency exists but is reluctant, for now, to look partisan by sharing a platform with an opposition leader.

George Osborne didn’t seem to have the same difficulty persuading business figures to sign public letters backing his tax policies before the last election. Before next May, the Chancellor will no doubt arrange a blue-chip chorus warning against the perils of a Labour government.

That needn’t be a knockout blow if Miliband reinforces suspicion of the Tories as corporate ciphers. Labour’s counterattack to the anti-business accusation is to portray Cameron and Osborne as anti-everyone else, always on the side of rapacious greed.

In the current debate over Pfizer’s take-over bid for AstraZeneca, for example, Mili­band wants Cameron to be seen as a “cheerleader” for a US predator as it circles an indigenous national industry. Labour is urging a change in the law to broaden the grounds on which ministers can intervene if they suspect that a deal is not in the national interest. That sounds sinister only to someone who thinks politicians are always a contaminant in impeccable markets – a view that has some currency among Conservative MPs. Yet Downing Street recognises that people other than Trots feel protective towards Britain’s home-grown pharmaceutical sector. (The Daily Mail is hostile to the takeover; Vince Cable has positioned the Lib Dems close to Labour.)

Osborne’s riposte to Miliband’s stance on the AstraZeneca bid includes a swipe at the last Labour government, which, “time after again when there were takeovers did nothing to protect Britain’s national economic interest”. So he recognises that deference to global corporations is out of fashion, although the Chancellor is also keen that the Pfizer bid be celebrated as a vote of confidence in his business-friendly tax regime.

Cameron was once more alert to the downside of globalisation. In 2009, he complained about an economic model in which, “Too often, the winners have taken it all.” As recently as January 2012, in a speech on “moral capitalism”, he declared himself determined to “stand up to big business” and fix failed markets. The Prime Minister’s argument then was that Tories were better placed than Labour to reform the system without breaking it, because they understand how business actually works.

Cameron’s interest in the ethics of wealth distribution coincided with a fear of perpetual stagnation. It vanished once the recovery came into view. One former adviser is scathing: “They were shitting themselves that growth wasn’t coming back . . . They didn’t really engage with the arguments.”

That is a product of social segregation as much as intellectual complacency. Cameron’s clique does not include anyone who will urge him to tackle fat-cattery and his campaign coffers are filled by people who insist that he doesn’t. Miliband has the reverse problem. There is no one in his entourage who has built a business and plenty who have read books on business gone bad.

The Prime Minister is right to see that as a weakness but wrong to think it can be exploited by declaring Miliband’s arguments worthless. The smarter move would be to acknowledge that Britain’s economy is skewed to favour the few and to revisit the claim that wayward capitalists will take regulatory medicine more readily from their Conservative friends; that Miliband lacks the clout in business circles to deliver the necessary change. Yet the moment when Cameron could bring himself to worry aloud about inequality has passed. That is a source of frequent comfort to Labour.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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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.