Cabinet that is a shadow of its former self

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The Independent Online
Kenneth Clarke yesterday wandered behind the Speaker's Chair in the House of Commons in search of the Shadow Cabinet room and asked: "Is this the way?"

It had been 18 years since a Conservative Leader of the Opposition, Margaret Thatcher, had met with her team in the Shadow Cabinet room, and they did not know the way.

Those who survived last Thursday's rout at the polls were called to the meeting by John Major as, barely half a mile away, Tony Blair welcomed his victorious troops to a mass meeting with tumultuous applause.

They traipsed into the Shadow Cabinet room to begin the slow process of rebuilding their party. They did not bother to rake over the ashes of their defeat. With seven of their number lost, including Michael Portillo, Malcolm Rifkind, and Michael Forsyth, they dispensed with a painful inquest.

Mr Major found himself surrounded by the contenders for his job. The party chairman, Brian Mawhinney, and former Chief Whip, Alastair Goodlad were among the first to arrive.

Next were the leadership challenger Peter Lilley, former secretary of state for social security secretary, and Gillian Shephard, the former secretary of state for education and employment, who threw her support behind him.

Other contenders for the leadership - Stephen Dorrell, former secretary of state for health, the ex-home secretary, Michael Howard, and the former secretary of state for Wales, William Hague - followed.

The former Chancellor, who had been an Opposition spokesman before but not a member of the Shadow Cabinet, looked a little lost and was the last in. It had echoes of the great defeat after the 1945 election, when Shadow Cabinet members sometimes gathered in their favourite watering hole, the Carlton Club, to keep up their spirits.

Mr Blair and his team had been slow to vacate the rooms for the shadow leader and his team, but they had cleared out the last traces of Labour's long occupation of the rooms.

Mr Major told his colleagues that he would be acting as a caretaker leader for a short while, until a successor had been selected, then he would retire to the backbenches.

In the meantime, he would not be attempting to reshuffle the Shadow Cabinet, which would tie the hands of the next leader. Mr Major will take on the role of shadow foreign secretary and defence secretary, vacated by Mr Rifkind and Mr Portillo. Others around the table were told they might have to double up their portfolios.