A Cabinet where all seems possible

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Indy Lifestyle Online
How do they look? Remarkably plausible for a bunch of men and women who have never governed before. Too inexperienced, sneered the complacent Tories before they had the smiles wiped off their faces. But the sight of Robin Cook settling into his leather sofa inside the grandiose glory of the Foreign Office brings no shock of surprise: he looks as if he belongs. The Iron Chancellor had never been inside No 11 before, but we find after the long march to power that we know him well already.

Mo Mowlam flew straight to Belfast, so much more at ease there than the last two patrician buffoons who preceded her: at last Northern Ireland has a serious politician on the way up, not a deadbeat missing opportunities. Now all the old cliches of the campaign collapse. No policies, the cynics said. Yet each of these new ministers entering their departments has a strong list of policies to implement, much to do and at once. They are like hungry diners at last sitting down to a long-awaited banquet after too many pre-dinner speeches.

There is no time - they have to tuck in fast. Bids for Bills to be included in the Queen's speech on 14 May all have to be in by this very morning. The Cabinet meets for the first time on Thursday, but even before that its Welfare-to-Work Committee is due to meet at dawn the same day - this is the most crucial plank of their platform, upon which so much hangs, for all their new money is in this one basket.

What's new about this Cabinet? Best is the presence of five women instead of the odd token skirt - though we shall hope for more women in the first Cabinet reshuffle, when the Prime Minister will be freed from party rules. Less attractive is the presence of so many Scots. They occupy a third of the Cabinet, yet only 8 per cent of the population live in Scotland. Broadcasting lore has it that the Scots accent is the best-loved - educated yet non-metropolitan - but during a protracted esoteric devolution debate, the accent may start to grate on English ears. It will be a constant reminder of the West Lothian question - the injustice of Scots MPs governing England but not vice versa, unmitigated by Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar's well- deserved esteem.

Otherwise, this Cabinet represents a fine balancing act, most of the right faces in the right places. Michael Meacher was the main faller: an affable left-wing lightweight, he never recovered from his absurd court- room failure to prove his working-class credentials. As for Clare Short, there would have been a national outcry if this warmest and most human of politicians had been punished for the very qualities that make her loved.

For the rest, it is a cleverly crafted Cabinet of people who mainly know their subjects well already. Some that didn't have been moved. What a sigh of relief that Jack Cunningham has been banished to Agriculture, that graveyard of political hopes. At Heritage they trembled at his self- confessed philistinism: safer by far with the gumboots than the galleries. His cynical indifference to the future of media ownership and his dismal stewardship of opposition to the Broadcasting Act last year made him unfit for the battles to come.

Can we hope that Chris Smith at Heritage will be resolute in stemming the galloping ambitions of Rupert Murdoch? The Oftel regulator whose job it is to ensure a level playing field in digital broadcasting is already under sinister attack in the Murdoch press. Smith has the honesty, let us hope he has the power to resist any favours expected for The Sun's comical support through the election.

Old bruiser Frank Dobson's elevation to Health was a clever move. A Bill to modify the internal market in the NHS will be in the Queen's speech, but it will embody no radical change, merely amending GP fund-holding and reducing the wasteful annual contractual round of bits of paper flying to and fro. However, the departing Chancellor of the Exchequer has left him an elephant trap in the NHS budget, and he will have to fight hard for real new money to plug the gaping hole.

Dobson's toughest job is to stop the health workers asking for too much, too soon. However, Unison leader Rodney Bickerstaffe is a changed man, committed to holding back his low-paid members' justifiable pent-up demands after years of pay freezes. The first public workers to try Blair's strength can expect a hammering - and wisely, Bickerstaffe doesn't want his members beaten to a pulp.

At the end of their term, how will this Cabinet judge their collective success? One of the best measures will be the size of the social security budget. The spiralling pounds 90bn total they have inherited is not an indicator of state generosity but of state failure and the destructive force of unemployment. It will not be down to Harriet Harman and Frank Field alone to reduce it, but much of the success of welfare-to-work falls to them.

Now the bad-mouthing of Harriet Harman has become a kind of knee-jerk silly-woman bashing. Here's a sample of what she's in for from yesterday's Sunday Telegraph: "Wide-eyed, vacuous, Labour's Virginia Bottomley ... She'll need minding. Major internal tensions with highly complex social security brief - and our new minister looking over her shoulder at Frank Field as her No 2."

This is all tosh but it doesn't come only from the right, who for some bizarre reason regard Field as one of theirs. Just because she's good- looking, that does not make her a Virginia Bottomley. For one thing, her crisis over her son's grammar school place toughened her up overnight and she will never suffer from Bottomley's fatally fatuous need to be loved. For another, she's no airhead, and she knows her fiendish brief in remarkable detail.

Nor, I predict, will there be friction between her and Frank Field, though the best game in town will be inventing it. His reputation as a loner and a maverick comes from the olden days of his valiant struggle with the lunatic left, striving to get them to see sense about issues such as benefit fraud. True, he carries potentially awkward baggage in his free-thinking writings on welfare - all those seminars at the Institute of Economic Affairs. Many of his ideas are definitely not government policy. He will have to abandon (as an article he wrote yesterday suggests he already has) his plans for compulsory contributions to a new pensions system. It is not practical politics, as it would amount to a swingeing pounds 3bn tax increase. Instead, Harman's plan to entice all employees into investing in extra state-approved pensions contributions on a voluntary basis will be tried first.

Over the weekend the excitement of victory has rapidly given way to the thrill of starting to pull on the levers of government. Will they work? Can these things be done? Right now, 18 years of frustration is being released in a great tidal wave of belief that everything can and will change. As they look at themselves assembled round the Cabinet table for the first time this week, anything will seem possible. As we look at them now, eager, serious and honest, we can only wonder we tolerated the decadence of the others for so long.

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