David Cameron speaks during a visit to Kingsmead School on February 2, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Cameron rides roughshod over Miliband again

The Tory leader's exuberant confidence allowed him to dominate the chamber. 

The Tories are purring with confidence at the moment. Their dominance of the media war and new-found unity means that they are scenting victory (even as the polls continue to show them neck-and-neck with Labour or slightly behind). 

The evidence of this was on display at today's PMQs. Ed Miliband asked David Cameron about preferential tax treatment for hedge funds (they are not required to pay stamp duty on their share transactions), linking the policy to the Tories' industry donors. But Cameron swatted his question away with effortless superiority. He questioned why "for 13 years, during many of which he was in the Treasury, they did absolutely nothing about this", before declaring, in reference to Ed Balls's Newsnight interview: "I have to say I'm delighted he's raised the economy on the morning after his shadow chancellor couldn't name one single business leader who backed Labour." 

At this point, the well-drilled Tory backbenches began chanting in unison: "Bill, Bill" and "Where's Bill?" (the first name of the business leader Balls almost remembered). Their barracking  persisted throughout Miliband's second question and they were rewarded with a first-rate Cameron gag: "Do you know what he said, Mr Speaker? He said: 'Bill Somebody.' Mr Speaker, Bill Somebody’s not a person; Bill somebody is Labour’s policy." Cheers erupted behind him. The Labour benches, meanwhile, already becalmed by the grim news from Scotland, were deathly silent. 

Miliband fought valiantly on, pressing Cameron to answer, but the PM had too much ammunition in reserve: the confusion over Labour's tuition fees policy, the tax avoidance of their donor John Mills, even the news that "the person who wrote that 'Things Can Only Get Better' says it no longer applies to Labour." The only moment of relief for Miliband came when he archly observed, as George Osborne sought to brief Cameron on tax policy: "You can't help him, George, you're too far away". 

But while the Labour leader was routed in the chamber, he can hope that Cameron's evasiveness hurts the PM in the country. His refusal to pledge to close the tax loophole (as Labour has done) risks reinforcing the Tories' reputation as the party of the rich (the greatest barrier to a majority). As they deride Labour's weaknesses, the Conservatives would do well not to forget their own. 

Outside of the main exchanges, a notable moment came when Labour MP and shadow justice minister Dan Jarvis questioned Cameron about support for a solar panel business in his Barnsley constituency. The respectful silence with which he was heard was a good example of why many believe he could one day lead his party. 

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.