Michael Brown: Cameron will not find it easy to form a new government

He will have only 100 re-elected MPs to choose from for ministerial posts
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The Independent Online

Lockerbie apart, this has been one of the quietest silly seasons in recent years for domestic politics. Apart from the minor skirmishes caused by Alan Duncan's unfortunate gaffe and the Tory MEP Dan Hannan's foray into the debate on the future of the NHS, party leaders have, sensibly, left us alone to enjoy the recent barbecue weather and England's Ashes glory.

But considering this is the last summer recess before the general election in 255 days' time (assuming it is 6 May 2010), and with another month still to go before the start of the party conference season, for all the complaints about the long recess, the public – if not the media – will surely appreciate this lull before the inevitable political storm.

It is a far cry from the 1996 summer recess, on the eve of the Blair victory, when a hungry Labour opposition was assailing British holiday-makers with Glenda Jackson campaigning on the beaches of Benidorm. John Prescott similarly disturbed the voters of Cleethorpes with frequent visits to play beach cricket in his bid to unnerve me as the soon to be ex-MP. By comparison, however, David Cameron and Gordon Brown are wise this time to give us a break from their utterances and constant photocalls. And few MPs currently have the appetite to be seen anywhere near their constituents – at home or abroad.

This period of quiet reflection should be an opportunity, however, for Mr Cameron to think beyond his forthcoming party conference speech to the day he may actually form his first administration in just eight months' time. In personnel terms, within his first two days in office, he will have to name not only his cabinet, but also the dozens of departmental junior ministers that make up the "payroll" vote.

This task will be the most difficult facing a new Prime Minister since Clement Attlee formed his first government in 1945 – thanks to the massive turnover of MPs likely to occur. The Tory parliamentary party currently totals 196, of which at least 30 Tory MPs are due to stand down at the forthcoming election. There may be even more who are thinking of retiring but who wish to delay the announcement so that their reputations do not get tarnished with those who were forced to resign by the expenses scandal.

So, assuming a Tory victory with an overall working majority, Mr Cameron will be faced with a parliamentary party numbering 350, or thereabouts, of whom only just over 100 will be previously sitting MPs. By comparison, when Margaret Thatcher formed her first government in 1979 her party gained 62 seats from other parties, but she was able to choose widely, from over 250 re-elected MPs from the previous parliament, the 100 or so cabinet and junior ministers.

Of those newly elected MPs (myself included) the high flyers – David Mellor, John Major, Chris Patten, John Patten and William Waldegrave – waited years before they got their first junior ministerial posts and nearly a decade before they made it into the cabinet.

If Mr Cameron retains the size of Gordon Brown's government – 23 cabinet ministers and more than 70 MPs serving as junior ministers (plus 30 Lords ministers) – most current Tory MPs seeking re-election can expect the prime ministerial phone call to serve in the first Cameron administration.

Day one of Mr Cameron's premiership will therefore be his best opportunity to deliver on his campaign pledge to reduce the size of government. We shall see immediately whether, if there is a substantial reduction in the number of junior appointments, the Tory leader really does also mean to reduce the total number of MPs as well.

But another – albeit risky – option is also open to Mr Cameron. Given that, of his most loyal MPs, many will be newly elected for the first time next year, it is not inconceivable that one or two may be destined for immediate promotion. Attlee was faced with a similar situation when forming his 1945 government. He had no hesitation in asking the newly elected MP for Ormskirk, Harold Wilson, to become Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Works.

Wilson made his maiden speech from the Treasury bench speaking for the government, as a minister, on the amenities and facilities for MPs. Within two years he had joined the cabinet at President of the Board of Trade. So who might be destined to repeat Wilson's achievement? Step forward Nicholas Boles, soon to be Tory MP for Grantham and Stamford, and who is now currently working for Mr Cameron's implementation team, preparing for government, in Tory HQ. Mr Boles may already be dreaming of the arrival of a ministerial limousine before he even makes his maiden speech.

mrbrown@talktalk.net

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