The Cabinet credibility gap

7 Dec 07
ROBERT SHRIMSLEY | Every morning, we hear, Gordon Brown speaks by telephone to the most important people in his government to discuss tactics. Then at 10am he speaks to them all again.

Every morning, we hear, Gordon Brown speaks by telephone to the most important people in his government to discuss tactics. Then at 10am he speaks to them all again.

With him on the bridge of the good ship Gordon are the two Eds (well, it’s better than one), Balls and Miliband, and Douglas Alexander, the international development secretary. There is no record of any such regular discourse with his chancellor, foreign secretary or home secretary.

Of course, all prime ministers have an inner circle. There is always a bunker and that bunker frequently excludes the more powerful political figures of the government.

The big beasts might be important but they have their own agendas and are not always judged to have the prime minister’s interests at heart. Brown himself, one should recall, was not in Tony Blair’s inner circle.

Indeed, much of the inner circle’s time seems to have been spent on discussions of how to deal with the truculent chancellor.

What is different here is that Brown’s great offices of state are filled with people he feels able to ignore. Blair, John Major and Margaret Thatcher all had serious players in at least some of those offices — people who might not have always been judged to be on side but who nonetheless could never be discounted.

Is the same true of Alistair Darling, David Miliband or Jacqui Smith? We know Brown feels able to ride roughshod over Darling by the way the retreat on capital gains tax was first leaked without Treasury knowledge. Little has been done to dispel the notion that Darling is keeping the seat warm for Balls.

Miliband’s views on world affairs seem of little import to the prime minister and his brief moment of stature as a potential Blairite challenger for the leadership is well past.

Smith is more interesting. She shows potential but is as yet unproven, and again unable to force her importance on the prime minister.

So at the very top of this administration are people whose value to Brown is secondary. For all the touting of Miliband, none really looks like a potential successor. We cannot yet discount Smith but we can’t exactly count her in either. When was the last time the three great offices of state held not a single serious candidate for the leadership?

Brown’s presence meant it was never true under Blair (who also at times had David Blunkett, Charles Clarke and John Reid).

John Major had Ken Clarke, Michael Howard and Douglas Hurd, as well as Michael Heseltine as deputy prime minister. Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet was crammed with possible successors.

Now of course, succession planning is not high on Brown’s to-do list. He doubtless sees his acolytes as the next generation of leaders. But there is a price to pay for this and we are seeing his government paying it.

For the alternative to being an administration of heavyweights is an administration of lightweights. Is it a coincidence that when problems strike, Brown suddenly finds himself falling behind in the polls, and losing his superiority in the competence category? And this is before the expected economic slowdown really begins to bite.

Let’s put it another way. Consider the line-ups of the shadow Cabinet and the Cabinet. Is Alistair Darling an obviously more enticing candidate for chancellor than George Osborne? Does David Miliband beat William Hague hands down, or Jacqui Smith patently trump David Davis?

Remember the question: not, are they better, but are they markedly better? Let’s go on: Would you really feel much less happy with Theresa Villiers rather than Ruth Kelly in charge of transport; Philip Hammond against Andy Burnham as chief secretary to the Treasury; and so on.

Person for person, the gap between the Cabinet and shadow Cabinet has never been closer in the lifetime of this government. Brown might still look the part of prime minister more than David Cameron but the rest of his team really do not tower over their opponents.

Many of the best figures of this Labour government have given up the ghost, some brought down by their own shortcomings, others ground down by Brown himself.

To light on an old cliché — who is the candidate for leadership if Brown fell under a bus? Who would the party pick? Sure, there would be candidates; yes, people grow into the job, but are there any who actually look like a leader

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