Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron speaks at his party's spring conference in Brighton in 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Tim Farron turns on Miliband: he's no match for Kinnock

Having previously praised the Labour leader, the Lib Dem president says he has failed to change his party. 

Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president and the favourite to succeed Nick Clegg as leader, charmed activists at the Times's lunchtime fringe today. With his declaration that "our pitch for being in government again shouldn't be negative" (a rebuke to the leadership's strategy), and his call for an "active, ambitious" state to protect citizens from the vagaries of globalisation , he succeeded in lifting delegates' spirits. 

The most politically notable moment came when he was asked about Ed Miliband. In response to health minister Norman Lamb's comment that he couldn't see Miliband "as a prime minister", he warned the Lib Dems not to "personalise" the general election campaign. "Anyone can be prime ministerial once they're prime minister," he said. "I often think David Cameron isn't prime ministerial, but he is prime minister." He added, however, that "the problem for Labour is that people can't place Ed Miliband in their minds behind the door of No.10."  He then went further and quipped that it was wrong to compare Miliband to Neil Kinnock because "it's an unfair comparison to Kinnock". Unlike the current incumbent, he said, the former Labour leader "took on his party and won". 

Farron's criticism of Miliband contrasts with what he told me when I first interviewed him for the New Statesman in September 2013. Back then, he lavished praise on the Labour leader, declaring that "I really like Ed Miliband, so I don’t want to diss him. I don’t want join in with the Tories who compare him to Kinnock." Now he argues that Miliband isn't even worthy of this unflattering comparison.

Although it's not surprising that the Lib Dem president should want to criticise the Labour leader at his party's conference, it adds to the sense that Miliband's stock has fallen in the last year. The irony, of course, is that Farron's call for a more interventionist state puts the pair in the same ideological territory. 

Elsewhere in the session, he argued that the Lib Dems "should have died in a ditch over tuition fees", noting that "reputations take years to build and seconds to lose". When asked whether he would stand in a future leadership contest, he wisely replied: "Anyone giving any headspace to anyone other than Nick being leader is letting the side down."

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.