Heads roll as Howard cuts his Shadow Cabinet from 26 to just 12

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Indy Politics

Despite the euphoria in the Conservative Party after the election of Michael Howard as leader, there were some glum faces yesterday when Tory frontbenchers emerged from their one-to-one meetings with him in his Commons room behind the Speaker's chair.

By slimming the 26-strong Shadow Cabinet he inherited from Iain Duncan Smith to 12, Mr Howard had to break bad news to several colleagues. With the exception of Eric Forth, the former shadow Commons leader, most of the downgraded MPs accepted a more junior role, but there was no disguising the disappointment of some. Surprise demotions included Damian Green, former education spokesman, and Tim Collins, former transport spokesman and Mr Howard's former special adviser. His first reshuffle shows that Mr Howard is prepared to ruffle egos. In a surprise move, he decided to create a "lean and keen" team to take the fight to Labour. He believed that meetings of 26 people were too unwieldy to decide policy and strategy. He also judged that the voters will only get to know a handful of senior Tories, so he has in effect already created his general election "A-Team".

Although at Westminster the shake-up will be seen as radical, to the public the new Tory line-up may look familiar. Apart from Lord Saatchi, the advertising guru who has become joint chairman of the party, and the leading Europhile David Curry, all the rest were in Mr Duncan Smith's top team. Their labels may have changed, but most of the faces have not. Mr Howard's line-up lacks an "X factor" that would have shown he had forged a team of "all the talents", as he pledged to do when he launched his leadership campaign. He would have preferred Michael Portillo, Kenneth Clarke or William Hague in the Shadow Cabinet.

To compensate, the new Tory leader has persuaded some of the "big beasts" to join a new advisory council, which will meet him regularly and campaign for the party in the country. It will include Mr Hague, Mr Clarke, Mr Duncan Smith and John Major.

This is a clever move, because it will enable the Tories to exploit Mr Hague's skills in the Commons chamber, where he will speak occasionally, and to "lock in" Mr Clarke, a dangerous man to have outside the tent. Mr Clarke will also be reassured by the promotion of his close ally Mr Curry, which was probably his request when he met Mr Howard.

Last night, there was some confusion among Tory MPs about whether the left or right had emerged the stronger from the reshuffle. Mr Clarke said: "I think this is a mix that could work. It's a courageous step because it will disappoint a lot of people, but it will be a more effective front bench. There are wets and drys, modernisers and non-modernisers, Europhiles and non-Europhiles."

The idea of a slimline Shadow Cabinet stems partly from polling research, showing that members of the public recognise at most half a dozen politicians of each party.

Mr Howard drew on the experience of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, in his reshuffle. Churchill decided during the Attlee Government in the 1940s that it made sense to have a slim Shadow Cabinet without specific portfolios. If a debate merited a tough approach, he would allow hardline colleagues to get stuck in, while others would be used when a less confrontational tone had to be struck.

The Conservative advisory council is a new body, but has its roots in the party's traditional style of consensual leadership, with former leaders giving their backing to the incumbent. It also echoes Baroness Thatcher's own management technique, when she struggled to unify the wings of the party after she became leader in 1975. Mr Howard's approach is driven more by the demands of the 24-hour news media than Parliament. Good media performers such as David Davis, Oliver Letwin and Tim Yeo are expected to dominate the airwaves on a wide range of issues. The junior members of their teams will shadow ministers, appearing at various Commons question times and mastering policy. But the Shadow Cabinet will deliver the key media soundbites on the main election issues of health, education, crime, transport, pensions and the economy.

Mr Howard's smaller, more focused team perhaps owes something to Tony Blair's approach when he became Leader of the Opposition in 1994. The New Labour project was run by a cabal ­ including Mr Blair, Gordon Brown, Alastair Campbell and the pollster Philip Gould ­ who took key decisions and bypassed official structures such as the Shadow Cabinet and Labour's national executive committee. Mr Howard would dearly love to be as successful as Mr Blair was.