The coalition seating plan: Forget who likes who – who sits where is all about status

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Indy Politics

If a hostess had worked out a seating plan like the one for yesterday's inaugural meeting of the coalition Cabinet, she would have been instantly drummed out of the Notting Hill dinner circuit. Quite apart from the acute shortage of women, and the decision to seat the host halfway down the table rather than at its head, the principle that you put people next to others they are likely to feel comfortable with has been grossly overlooked.

For example, it was only a month ago, as the three party leaders were hyping themselves up for the first of their televised debates, that Philip Hammond, then a Tory treasury spokesman, produced a searing attack on what he claimed was an £11.6bn "black hole" in the costing of the Liberal Democrat manifesto.

"Their credibility is shot and Vince Cable's reputation as a serious economist and observer of the fiscal scene takes another blow," said Mr Hammond.

He is now the Transport Secretary, and can be seen in the picture, wearing a yellow tie, next to Vincent Cable. On his other side is another Liberal Democrat, Chris Huhne. The grand old man of the Cabinet, the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, is not visible in the photograph. He is almost opposite David Cameron, and someone who either has a mischievous sense of humour or does not know much about the internal dynamics of the Tory party has placed him next to the Work and Pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith.

The two of them fought an ill-tempered leadership contest in 2001, which Duncan Smith won. Clarke was not asked to serve in his Shadow Cabinet, and no doubt would have refused, if asked.

The main cause of their mutual hostility was that Duncan Smith was the most persistent of all the anti-EU rebels who made life so difficult for the last Tory Prime Minster, John Major, and for Clarke, who was Chancellor at the time, when they were trying to get the Commons to agree to sign up to the Maastricht Treaty.

While Iain Duncan Smith appeared to be campaigning to get Britain out of the EU, a pressure group called the European Movement was dedicated to getting the UK to join the Euro. Its director of communications was the red-haired Danny Alexander, now a Liberal Democrat MP and Scottish Secretary, who is sitting on the other side of Mr Duncan Smith.

But then the principle behind the seating arrangement has nothing to do with who likes who, and everything to do with status. The more important a minister, the closer he or she is to David Cameron.

Nick Clegg, obscured in this picture, is in pole position, directly opposite the Prime Minister. The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, also obscured, is at the Prime Minister's right hand. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, is at his left, as befits the man who is deputy leader of the Conservative Party in all but title.

The three Conservatives in official order of seniority are across the table. The Chancellor, George Osborne, and the Home Secretary Theresa May, are to the right of Nick Clegg; Ken Clarke is to his left. Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, is next to William Hague, with the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley to his left. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, is next but one to the Prime Minister, in the direction of the camera.

In order to accommodate five Liberal Democrats, David Cameron had to drop five members of his old Shadow Cabinet, but they are all in the picture, apart from the former shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling, who was demoted after one gaffe too many.

Six of the men in the picture are not Cabinet ministers, but middle- ranking ministers on middle ranking salaries; but five of them have an automatic right to attend Cabinet meetings; and one, the Attorney General, Chris Grayling, nearest the camera, has the right to be there "when asked". The other five are at the far end.

One other person in the room is not receiving a Cabinet minister's salary. That is Baroness Warsi, the first Muslim Cabinet minister, whose official title is Minister without Portfolio, though her job is chairman of the Conservative Party. It is the party who pays her salary, and her sole task is to guard the party's interests.