The New Statesman endorsement for the Liberal Democrat leadership: Tim Farron, pictured here outside parliament. Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
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The NS leader: why we're endorsing Tim Farron for the Liberal Democrat leadership

The road to recovery will be a long one. It is Mr Farron who offers the Lib Dems their best hope.

More than any other British political party, the Liberal Democrats face an existential crisis. They have been reduced from 57 MPs in 2010 to just eight – the same number as the Democratic Unionists – and have become a byword for hypocrisy and opportunism following their role in the coalition government. The Scottish National Party, the UK Independence Party and the Greens have all, in different ways, captured the political territory they once occupied. An increasing number of commentators call for them simply to dissolve themselves, or to merge with Labour or the Conservatives.

Next month Liberal Democrat members will elect a leader to inherit what remains of their party. The two candidates, representing a quarter of their number in the Commons, are Tim Farron, the former party president, and Norman Lamb, the former health minister. It is Mr Farron (interviewed in this week's magazine) who offers the Lib Dems their best hope of recovery. Unlike Mr Lamb, he is untainted by service in the Tory-led government and voted against policies such as higher tuition fees and the bedroom tax. He won his constituency of Westmorland and Lonsdale from the Conservatives in 2005, ending nearly a century of rule by a single party, and transformed it into one of the safest Lib Dem seats in Britain through Stakhanovite campaigning. He is devoted to the causes the Lib Dems must embody if they are to survive, let alone flourish: constitutional reform, civil liberties, environmentalism and social justice. Like his late mentor Charles Kennedy, he is a sincere and humane communicator. The revival of the Lib Dems will be the work of many years; Mr Farron is the best man to begin the long journey back across the wasteland.

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Now listen to George, Stephen and Caroline discussing Tim Farron's leadership prospects on the NS podcast:

 

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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.