Adrian Hamilton: Wanted: some big beasts in the Cabinet

If you exclude the PM and the Chancellor, it is hard to see a small duck, let alone a big beast
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The Independent Online

The New Labour government will soon be 10 years old. But what may well be most remarkable about this administration as it approaches its birthday is not so much its longevity but how little heavyweight talent it has at the end. Think of almost any cabinet since the Second World War and even the weakest of governments - the later Wilson administrations, John Major's and Jim Callaghan's - had some pretty formidable figures round the table. You might think some overrated, others positively loathsome, but it is hard to deny that Tony Crossland, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Dick Crossman from the Wilson government or Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine and Chris Patten from Thatcher and Major's, were pretty formidable politicians, "big beasts" in the jungle that is Westminster.

Compare that with the present Cabinet and, if you exclude the PM and the Chancellor, it is hard to see a small duck never mind a large beast. Minister after minister has come forward to the front of the stage only to be felled under the full spotlight of the public gaze. First Mo Mowlem, then David Blunkett, Jack Straw, Charles Clarke and now even the battling Dr Reid have been fêted as champs, anointed as potential prime ministers only to stumble and fall.

And what is left? A front row of perfectly amiable and reasonably proficient (well some of them) middle-ranking executives. With the exception of perhaps David Miliband at Environment, it is almost impossible to imagine any of them making it to the top. The "Blair babes" are dull and obedient. Margaret Beckett is out of place. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, has become a comic turn as he tries to reinvent himself as the guardian of human rights, while figures such Peter Hain, Harriet Harman, Hilary Benn and Alan Johnson, purportedly battling for the deputy leadership, don't look as if they could lay a glove on the bell ringer never mind each other.

Why so? It could be a generational problem. Politicians, like artists and scholars, tend to have good vintages and bad. It's not a question of opportunity. Although Labour came in with a overhang of first-timers, there has been plenty of time to grow in the job since. Yet the intake of 1997 has failed to flourish. The best talent, such as Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and Robin Cooke, all came in from before.

The Blair government has not been without talent. Ministers such as Patricia Hewitt or Alistair Darling are not stupid nor exactly lightweight. They appear to do their jobs perfectly competently. It's just that as politicians they have no presence. It is impossible imagining them ever leading the public on a new course let alone standing firm and resigning if they are against.

The war in Iraq is partly to blame. In domestic politics as foreign, the decision to go along with the US invasion has served to destroy reputations and break ambitions. A good many in the Cabinet didn't even believe in the invasion at the time but they went along with it and now face the uncomfortable knowledge of their own feebleness. Iraq has blighted a generation and it's difficult to see how they recover.

It is also possible to argue - and there are plenty of political loyalists who do - that the media and the remorseless pressure of the public gaze makes it almost impossible for mortal men or women to thrive in the Whitehall hothouse. The best talent, so it is said, is going instead to careers in business and NGOs and other organisations where they can have private lives without such scrutiny.

But politics has always been a "rough old trade", as my colleague Alan Watkins would put it. The scandal sheets were just as ferocious in past centuries, so were the cartoonists and if they didn't have the television camera politicians could still face the mob. Even the great Duke of Wellington had his windows smashed in Apsley House for his opposition to the Reform Bill (imagine the squeals and demands for instant internment that would emanate from Blair and Reid if it happened today).

It could equally be argued, indeed, that what marks out the present generation of politicians is not so much the pressures upon them as their inability to cope with them. Too many have been parachuted into safe seats, without ever having had to face a hostile crowd or carry off difficult speeches. Public Relations, think tanks, college lectureships and even journalism are not nurseries for the political robustness demanded of today's practitioners, or yesterday's.

But the real problem for the Government has stemmed from the extraordinary duumvirate of Blair and Brown that has run it for the past decade. When the historians finally get their excavating tools to work on this administration, it will not be public spending or city academies or top-up fees or any of the other policy initiatives that Blair makes so much of that excites their attention. It will be the dual-fired government of these two figures that will interest them and the effect it has had on the way the civil service has organised itself and on the evolution of policy in a government where the Chancellor has virtually run domestic policy and the Prime Minister has concentrated on foreign policy while jumping in and out of home affairs when the mood, or rather the opportunity, has arisen.

In political terms, however, it has resulted in a quite devastating strangulation of talent within the party. As long as these two have battled it out at the top, pitting their own protégés against the other's in an unceasing proxy war, it has been virtually impossible for the party as a whole or the Government to develop any individual talent or let it prosper.

Retreating to his base in Number 10, Tony Blair has undermined the concept of cabinet government, and with it the chances for ministers to flourish. His interventions have been too frequent and too inconsistent to let anyone develop a base.

At the same time, the Chancellor, a machine politician of the old school with a "clunking fist" more often used against his enemies within than without, has set out to destroy anybody who might appear as a rival to his succession to the prime ministership, while gathering round himself a coterie of largely junior ministers notable for for their loyalty. And so we have a situation in which nearly the whole cabinet has sworn obedience to the Chancellor months before a party election for a new leader has even been called.

It's not good for democracy and it is not good for government. The worry is that it could get even worse under Brown. Everything in the Chancellor's behaviour to date, and everything one can glean from his choice of confidantes, suggests a man that cannot delegate and certainly doesn't encourage equal opinions to his own. If the Labour Party has so little talent in depth it may just be that its leadership hasn't wanted it.