Blair's big beauty contest

The winners of yesterday's shadow cabinet elections cannot rest on their laurels. How they perform from now on is what will determine their chances of a place in a Blair government
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The one safe bet about the Labour Shadow Cabinet elected last night is that it won't be identical to the Cabinet Tony Blair appoints if and when he becomes Prime Minister some time over the next 10 months. The respected Labour MP Jeff Rooker struck a chord last week when he pointedly remarked that Blair was under no "legal obligation" to take his entire Shadow Cabinet into government.

For most members of Labour's front bench, how they perform in the protracted general election campaign between now and May will probably have more influence on whether - and at what level - they win a seat at the cabinet table than anything that has so far happened during the party's long dark years of opposition.

Blair is likely to judge his colleagues according to three stiff tests: their intelligence in developing and selling the policies covered by their departmental briefs; their performance at the Commons dispatch box and on the airwaves; and how far they are - in the jargon of the Blair circle - "team players".

Shadow cabinet elections have come to be seen as a political beauty contest. But if the Parliamentary Labour Party really is the most sophisticated electorate in the world, as it likes to think of itself, then it must know already that the beauty contest that matters, the one to decide who will form possibly the first Labour Cabinet for the best part of a generation, starts now.

There are, of course, some certainties about a few of the the biggest hitters in the Labour team. Clement Attlee amazed his party in 1945 by swapping, at King George VI's suggestion, the portfolios of Hugh Dalton and Ernest Bevin, making the former chancellor and the latter foreign secretary. But much as Robin Cook might yearn for Blair to do the same, he won't. Gordon Brown will be Chancellor of the Exchequer and the best bet must still be that Cook will be foreign secretary. Lord (Derry) Irvine, Mr Blair's mentor and pupil master at the bar, will become Lord Chancellor. David Blunkett has Blair's public word for it that he will be the first Labour education secretary since Shirley Williams. And beyond that almost nothing can be said with total confidence about who will be who in a Blair government.

The uncertainty is compounded by the deep reluctance, to put it mildly, of Blair's lieutenants to speak about the future shape of a Labour Cabinet all. In the face of a reticence bordering on the paranoid and a deep dislike of all speculation on the subject, we can only, well, speculate.

One of the few public utterances on the subject from anyone close to the leadership is an enigmatic paragraph in Peter Mandelson's book The Blair Revolution in which he says that "with less need to balance right and left since the days of old Labour, ministers at all levels can be selected strictly on merit - producing a government of talents, rather than of interests, to ensure maximum performance."

This needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Margaret Thatcher, not exactly the most spineless or least ideological of party leaders, still found it necessary, right to the end, to balance right and left in her Cabinet. Indeed, the one she appointed in 1979 was positively dripping with "wets" on the pro-European, one-nation left of the party. Labour's Cooks and Prescotts will gain places on merit alone, but they also have constituencies that cannot be ignored.

Which casts some doubt on the prospect, however exciting, that fortified by a handsome majority Tony Blair will immediately bury half the Shadow Cabinet elected last night, appoint a dozen or so rising modernisers from outside its ranks, and offer jobs to the Liberal Democrats Paddy Ashdown, Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy. Given Blair's capacity to surprise, it is conceivable, of course, that he will do just that.

Alistair Darling, Alan Michael, Brian Wilson, Tessa Jowell, Kim Howells, Stephen Byers, Alan Milburn, Henry Macleish, Geoff Hoon, (from the left) Dawn Primarolo and, of course, Mandelson himself, are all putative cabinet entrants, with Darling probably the front-runner to go into a first Cabinet. Blair will be tempted to elevate Frank Field for his rare ability to think the unthinkable on social security. The Labour peer and academic Baronness Blackstone would be an intriguing choice for leader of the Lords, (though it is more likely to be the present Labour leader, Lord Richard.)

But it is likelier that most will have to wait for the first big post- election reshuffle - depending on how they conduct themselves as key ministers of state. This isn't so bad, career-wise, when you consider that Roy Jenkins's first job, in 1964, was outside the Cabinet, and that he was home secretary a year later and chancellor two years after that.

For Blair may not be as keen as some think to exclude from his first Cabinet mainstream or even old Labour members of the Shadow Cabinet. The unreconstructed Michael Meacher and Tom Clarke, who unhelpfully attacked the Labour candidate in the middle of the Monklands by-election, are not good bets. Nor, perhaps, is the persistently, if engagingly, boat rocking Clare Short - at least in her present job.

But while Jack Cunningham (old Labour right) hasn't always been the most energetic of Opposition politicians, he is regarded by Blair as a heavyweight. Ron Davies has made some signal mistakes as shadow Welsh Secretary: gratuitously insulting the Tory rebel Elizabeth Peacock in the middle of the coal crisis, and leading a childish Commons walk-out in protest at the Englishman William Hague's appointment as Tory Welsh Secretary, to name but two. But he swallowed the devolution referendum with dignity and is regarded by Blair as an impressive player, particularly on his own turf.

Equally, Ann Taylor wasn't a success in the education portfolio. But she, too, has impressed Blair in her handling of the Nolan report and Commons reform as shadow Leader of the House. Gavin Strang has an old Labour left pedigree but he has won brownie points for his thoughtfulness and his response to the BSE crisis. Frank Dobson isn't fashionably new Labour, King's Cross rather than Islington man. But he has a better than even chance of being tested in a cabinet post. And so on.

Beyond that, it is obvious that Jack Straw, and Marjorie Mowlam, modernisers both, will have cabinet posts. So, for all her travails, will Harriet Harman, but perhaps in a different portfolio than health. George Robertson, the shadow Scottish Secretary who Blair regards as a high flyer, could be destined for an upwardly mobile UK job such as defence. So will Chris Smith, but probably in a post which puts him less at loggerheads with Gordon Brown than his present portfolio of social security.

Indeed, the modest reshuffle expected to follow last night's election results won't be much of a guide to who finally gets what. Donald Dewar is and will be a member of the inner "A" team. There are those in the party who think that Dewar should be given a big department, leaving Nick Brown, a close Gordon Brown ally to be chief whip. But it still looks very much as though Dewar will remain as chief whip, in a broad-ranging role which tears up the ancient taboo by which government chief whips do not speak, in the Commons or on television.

The biggest unresolved question of all is a job for John Prescott. He would like an economic overlordship, or even to match Michael Heseltine's role of Deputy Prime Minister. Gordon Brown would surely see off the first notion, and Blair has shown no enthusiasm for the second. Which leaves the prospect of a department or a new portfolio-free role akin to that of the Tory party chairman. It remains the thorniest personnel question Blair has to resolve between now and the general election.

Meanwhile a posse of newly elected shadow cabinet members and junior front-benchers will travel to Templeton College, Oxford today for yet another seminar on preparing for government. It will be addressed by Roy Hattersley, who unlike any member of Blair's future administration was a real live member of a Labour Cabinet. It's a reminder of how untested will be the team he appoints if he wins the election.