George Osborne and David Cameron speak to business leaders at the AQL centre on February 5, 2015 in Leeds. Photograph: Getty Images.
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When will the Tories make their inheritance tax pledge?

Osborne has at least one big card left to play - but it might help the Conservatives less than they hope. 

How many bullets do Labour and the Tories have left to fire? That is the question being asked in Westminster as the polls remain deadlocked. Ed Miliband's team believe that the Tories are "running out of road" having launched major assaults on Labour's spending plans and its "anti-business" stance to little effect. 

But one card that the Conservatives do have left to play is inheritance tax. David Cameron and George Osborne have repeatedly stated that they will announce plans to significantly increase the threshold before the election. The latter told the Sunday Times in January: "I have taken steps to help with inheritance, making sure that people can pass on their pension to their children. People can pass on their ISAs. David Cameron has made it clear, as have I, that we believe inheritance tax is a tax that should be paid by the rich and we will set out our further approach closer to the election." It was Osborne's pledge to raise the starting level to £1m in his 2007 conference speech that spooked Gordon Brown into calling off the election and that earned the Chancellor his reputation as a strategic grandmaster. 

Next week's Budget would be a natural opportunity for him to repeat this gambit. The Tories have briefed that the statement will include separate, non-coalition sections on the tax and welfare changes a future Conservative government would make, such as reducing the benefit cap to £23,000 and raising the 40p tax threshold to £50,000. 

But while cutting inheritance tax is usually regarded as an unambiguous vote winner, it's worth recalling that at the 2010 general election it partly harmed the Tories by reinforcing their reputation as the party of the rich (with Gordon Brown lambasting them for planning to cut taxes for "the wealthiest 3,000 estates"). Indeed, in his biography of Osborne, Janan Ganesh revealed that the Chancellor was secretely glad when the Lib Dems forced him to drop the policy. 

Any new pledge would risk having the same effect while also making it harder than ever for the Chancellor to argue that his sums add up. But this fiscal firework is one of the few things that could still change the game. 

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.