Shadows of their former selves

Paul Routledge argues that many of the men who six months ago were leaders of the Government have become anonymously ineffective in Opposition
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It cannot be long now before a discreet advertisement appears, perhaps in the personal column of the Spectator: "Wanted, for Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, one Shadow Cabinet, approximately 20 members. This is an equal-opportunity position, open to all persons hostile to a single European currency, and possessed of a consuming desire to govern. A willingness to wait at least 10 years before taking office is desirable, together with a clean private-life licence. Applicants should write in the first instance to W Hague, Human Resources Director, the Conservative Party. Note: previous incumbents need not apply."

After the turmoil of the past few days - from the humiliating defeat at the Winchester by-election to the sparking of a new crisis over Europe by Tory leader William Hague withdrawing the whip from Peter Temple- Morris, and Michael Heseltine's sharp criticism of that decision, and Mr Temple-Morris's departure toLabour - Mr Hague's team is in desperate need of a change in fortune. The solution may well be a change of personnel.

Typical of recent poor parliamentary performances of the Shadow Cabinet was Sir Brian Mawhinney's ramblings last Thursday. The Ulster avenger performed his standard rant, accusing the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, of getting into bed with the criminal fraternity simply because he had announced an extension of electronic tagging. Mr Straw cut him to pieces. "There has rarely been a more muddled response to any statement in the House since I have been a member," he observed.

Hitherto, the shadow Home Secretary had been more noticeable for his silence than his volubility, to great relief all round. And in this he is not alone. Peter Lilley, the shadow Chancellor, appears cowed by Gordon Brown, and search parties are being sent out to find the shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Howard. Can it be only six months since he was never off the Today programme? And has Stephen Dorrell, the shadow Education and Employment Secretary, lost his tongue? He had an open goal with David Blunkett's determination to upset the middle classes by introducing university tuition fees, and still he missed.

At a pinch, Joe Public might recognise William Hague, whose flat-cap vowels are now getting under the Prime Minister's skin, but his Shadow Cabinet could pass in the street unnoticed. Jerry Hayes, the former Tory MP turned commentator, argues: "It is a total shambles, ghosts of times past and terrible, brought together not out of conviction but as a result of pork-barrelling for the leadership. Hague knows that most of them will have to be axed in the new year ... with the notable exception of John Redwood, they are accustomed to government, not opposition; to dropping goolies, not kicking them." As usual, Mr Hayes hit the nail on the head with the largest instrument to hand. The ex-ministers are floundering. Mr Redwood is the only one who clearly enjoys opposition; after all, he spent much of his time opposing John Major. He sniffed out the mini-scandal of Lord Simon and his BP shares, and forced the embarrassed DTI minister to divest. He made a lot of the running in the Bernie Ecclestone affair, and is never at a loss for a rapier thrust against Blair's Holy Rollers. Redwood gets eight out of 10 in his mid- session report.

Two others have made a reasonable fist of the job. John Maples, at Health, back in the Commons after a five-year break, clearly enjoys mixing it with Frank Dobson. Iain Duncan-Smith is doing quite well at Social Security, pulling Harriet Harman's hair. Considering the internal tensions between her and Frank Field, her nominal deputy, it is an easy hand to play, however. Mr Maples and Mr Duncan-Smith get six out of 10.

Then we come to the great swaths of "must try harder" shadow ministers. Mr Howard put his head above the parapet during Robin Cook's uncomfortable tour of the Indian sub-continent, but has since retired to his dug-out. "I can't believe he will continue like that," said one friend. "He's a big hitter." But he has been leaning on his bat. Five out of 10.

Michael Ancram, spokesman on Constitutional Affairs, Scotland and Wales, is fortunate not to have a minister to shadow, and this makes comparison difficult. He cut a good profile in the referendum debates, despite being on the losing side. Six out of 10.

Which is more than can be said for his fellow-aristocrat, Sir George Young, who has not seen much action at Defence. He gets four out of 10. Mr Lilley gets three, essentially for turning up for his ritual humiliation by Big Gordie. Mr Dorrell rates only two out of 10 for an invisible performance against Mr Blunkett; likewise Gillian Shephard, who shadows Ann Taylor, Leader of the House.

Once he has settled down to married life, Mr Hague must have a night of long brown envelopes. "Dear --," he must write, "the party is deeply indebted for your long and valuable services. Now will you please return to the back-benches and let my young Turks get on savaging the Blairistas."