George Osborne arrives at Lancaster House for a UK/China Financial Forum in London on June 18, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Falling wages show why the Tories aren't benefiting from the return of growth

GDP may be rising, but wage growth is at its lowest level on record. There is no recovery for most voters. 

When wages briefly drew level with inflation earlier this year, some claimed that the "cost-of-living-crisis" (in Labour's phrase) was over. The Tories argued that wages were a "lagging indicator" and that higher output would translate into higher salaries. As George Osborne remarked after the publication of the GDP figures in October 2013, "If Britain is growing then the finances of Britain’s families will start to grow." 

But today's earnings stats show that the reverse, dismayingly, is true. Total pay fell in nominal terms by 0.2 per cent between April and June, compared to inflation of  1.9 per cent. The fall is partly accounted for by last April's deferral of bonuses to benefit from the abolition of the 50p tax rate, which artificially boosted wage growth. But even if bonuses are stripped out, regular pay rose by just 0.6 per cent (1.3 per cent below inflation), the lowest figure since comparable records began in 2001 (although it is worth noting, as Duncan Weldon does, that real wages are not the same thing as living standards). 

The economic upside is the jobs boom. Unemployment fell by 132,000 to 2.08 million (6.4 per cent), the lowest level since the final quarter of 2008, while employment rose by 167,000 to 30.6 million (73.0 per cent), within touching distance of the record figure of 73.1 per cent achieved in February 2005.

But as Labour has long warned, far too many are in trapped in low-wage, low-skill jobs that don't pay them enough to achieve an adequate standard of living. Today's figures don't include the self-employed (responsible for almost half of the rise in employment over the last year) whose earnings have fallen at an even faster rate. 

On a political level, the figures help explain why the Tories have yet to receive the polling dividend that many expected from the recovery. While GDP is rising, wages are not, leaving many feeling no better off. Worryingly for the Conservatives, private polling by Labour shows that as growth accelerates, voters have become more concerned with issues such as living standards (on which Labour leads) and less concerned with issues such as the deficit (on which the Tories lead). With just nine months to go until the election, Osborne is running out of time to translate economic gains into political ones. 

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.