Tory MP Mark Reckless announces his defection to Ukip at the party's conference in Doncaster. Photograph: Sky News.
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Mark Reckless becomes second Tory MP to defect to Ukip

Rochester and Strood MP says the Conservative leadership "aren't serious about the change that I think this country needs."

Just when the Tories seemed poised to take advantage of Labour's flat conference, they throw it all away again. At Ukip's gathering in Doncaster, Mark Reckless has just announced on stage that he's become the second Conservative MP, following Douglas Carswell, to defect to Nigel Farage's party. Like Carswell, he has also resigned from parliament and triggered a by-election in his Rochester and Strood constituency. 

This is, to put it mildly, terrible for David Cameron and ensures that the focus at the Conservative conference (which opens in Manchester tomorrow) will be on the right's divisions, rather than any new policy announcements. There had been rumours for several days of two Tories defecting, and CCHQ will be terrified that there may be more to come (not least if Ukip triumphs in the two forthcoming by-elections). 

Reckless, who voted against military action in Iraq yesterday (in line with Ukip's position), told his audience: "Today, I am leaving the Conservative Party and joining Ukip. These decisions are never easy, mine certainly has not been. Many have been the sleepless nights when I have talked it over with my wife, and thought about the future of our children. But it is a decision I make from optimism, a decision that is born of belief that Britain can be better and of my knowledge of how the Westminster parties hold us back, but also of my belief in the fresh start that Ukip offers. 

"We all know the problem of British politics, that people feel disconnected from Westminster. But disconnected is too mild a word; people feel ignored, taken for granted, over-taxed, over-regulated, ripped off and lied to. And they have reason to, because, with some honourable exceptions, MPs too often are not local representatives but agents of a political class. Instead of championing their constituents' interests in Westminster, too often they champion their party's interests in their constituencies.

"We have even evolved a particular language to describe the way in which MPs betray their constituents, they are called brave, or mature, or pragmatic, or realistic, but all those words are euphemisms for one thing, which is to break their promises to their constituents. Well, I remember the promises I made to my constituents in Rochester and Strood at the last election, and I intend to keep them. I promised we would cut immigration, I promise we would cut the deficit so we could cut taxes, I promised we would decentralise power, not least over housing numbers, I promise we would have a more open and accountable politics, and I promised, above all, that we would help get our country out of the European Union. 

"And shall I tell you something, I've found that it's impossible to keep those promises as a Conservative, and that is why I'm joining Ukip." 

He added: "The problem is those at the top of the Conservative Party, they are not on our side, they aren't serious about the change that I think this country needs."

As well as being an obvious gift to Labour, as any defection is, Reckless's move will also help its efforts to "Toryfy" Ukip, which has begun to make advances in Labour territory. With two Conservative MPs on board, it becomes harder for Farage to reject the charge that his party is "Torier than the Tories". In response, Labour's Michael Dugher said: "This is a hammer blow to David Cameron's already weakened authority. On the eve of his conference we again see that Conservatives' confidence in Cameron is plummeting. David Cameron has always pandered to his right, and even they are now deserting him.

"This also underlines that UKIP are a party of Tory people, Tory policies and Tory money. It is clearer than ever that only Labour has a plan to make everyday working people across the country better off."

Last year, Reckless blamed his defeat to Labour in 2005 on Ukip, writing: "Yes, my majority was twice as big as top Ukip vote anywhere in country, but I lost in 2005 (by 213) cos Ukip stood + got c.1500." Expect that to be true for 20+ Conservatives in 2015. 

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.