Nick Clegg addresses delegates at the CBI conference on November 10, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Lib Dems suffer worst-ever by-election result for a major party

The party won just 0.9 per cent of the vote. But it remains confident that it can win where it is incumbent. 

It is the woes of the Conservatives and Labour that loom largest after last night. The Tories lost Rochester (albeit by a narrower margin than the final polls suggested), a seat they had repeatedly boasted they could win, and Ukip acquired its second MP. Far from losing momentum as the general election approaches, the Farageists are still gaining it. Further Conservative defections, if less likely than some suggest, cannot be ruled out. The schism on the right of British politics looks further than ever from being healed. 

But having long planned to exploit the Tories' tribulations, Labour finds itself embroiled in its own crisis. Emily Thornberry's resignation as shadow attorney general over her ill-judged tweet of a house bearing St George's flags means that disastrous headlines for Ed Miliband are competing this morning with those for David Cameron. 

It would be remiss, however, not to note the apocalyptically bad performance of the Liberal Democrats. They won just 0.9 per cent of the vote in Rochester, a record low for a major party in a by-election (the previous nadir being the 1.4 per cent they polled in Clacton), and lost their deposit for the 11th time in this parliament. A party that once specialised in winning by-elections has become adept at losing them. Activists are only grateful that they narrowly avoided defeat to an independent dominatrix candidate. 

But the party remains more stoical than its subterranean ratings would suggest. While their vote has collapsed to unimaginable lows in some seats, the Lib Dems remain confident that they can hold most of their 56 MPs at the general election. The most significant by-election result for the party in this parliament was that in Eastleigh, where, despite all the obstacles to doing so, they held the seat by nearly 2,000 votes. The victory reflected the Lib Dems' strong local reputation and their still-potent ground game. By maximising the benefits of incumbency, the party could yet retain most of its seats and, even as it falls behind Ukip in vote share, hope to re-enter government in another hung parliament

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.