For the first time since Labour came to power cabinet ministers have a chance to breathe, to become fully developed political personalities. From 1997 Tony Blair and Gordon Brown dominated the Government. The stifling dynamics of the duopoly were all that mattered. Cabinet ministers sought to please one or both of them. That was the limit of their political purpose. Policy was determined from within Number Ten or the Treasury and the rest of them knew it.
Privately some cabinet ministers had fresh insights, but most of them did not dare to have even those. They had been in opposition for 18 years. The duopoly had got them to power. They bowed to the duopoly. For Labour, fearful of 1980s style indiscipline, the arrangement had some advantages for a time. But the obvious disadvantage was that, uniquely, no big names surfaced in power as they did even under the forbidding leadership of Margaret Thatcher.
After a decade in government Labour was in no position to stage a leadership contest last summer because it lacked potential leaders. When Mrs Thatcher took an enforced bow three candidates fought over the crown and several others could have made a worthy bid.
It seemed at first as if Gordon Brown's premiership would extend the culture of doomed ministerial submissiveness. The duopoly had been halved, but one figure would control everything. If a hospital ward was opening Mr Brown would be there. If there was a hint of bad weather Mr Brown would chair an emergency meeting of Cobra. If there was an idea to be had Mr Brown would have it.
Now in the gloom of bad poll ratings the political context has changed. Of course Mr Brown will be more determined than ever to be associated with any headline grabbing initiative, not that it will do him much good. But he needs cabinet ministers to become bigger figures than they are.
Suddenly it is in his interests to allow stars to shine, rather than smother alternative shafts of light in darkness. It does not help Mr Brown to be seen alone raging in the storm. On the contrary his chances of finding at least some fleeting shelter are enhanced if he is seen as leading a more vibrant team. It is an opportunity the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, seems to be taking. His performance on Andrew Marr's programme on Sunday was the best I have seen him give in any arena, confident, assertive and accessible. I liked it when he said of the Conservatives' confused interest in the policy area of poverty: "If the Conservatives want to make poverty a big area of debate, I say bring it on". He was also effective in dissecting David Cameron's poor performance on the same programme.
When Mr Cameron was asked to name a tough decision he had taken in relation to public spending the Tory leader responded comically by saying he had proposed the reduction of MPs' expenses. Mr Cameron would not get away with such casual trivialisation of the biggest theme of the lot, tax and spending, if the Government was not in such trouble: "I have taken the tough decisions on public spending. I plan to cut MPs' expenses. Thank you and good night".
I detect a pattern. Mr Cameron displays outstanding leadership qualities when his back is against the wall, as it was in the early autumn of last year. He shows also signs of inadvertent complacency when things are going well. Last Thursday he chose to highlight crime in a BBC interview on the day that official figures had shown a substantial fall in crime. On Sunday he was ill prepared for his exchanges with Mr Marr, or rather he has not done enough work on tax and spending to have coherent answers. Yesterday the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, hinted at more tax cuts to an audience of business leaders. Yet when I have conversations with shadow cabinet members, they accept privately that their proposals will require increases in spending at least in the short term. Mr Cameron cannot disguise the incoherence, but luckily for him no one is noticing.
Except for Mr Miliband, who went for him during a subsequent interview. On the Today programme yesterday it was suggested at one point that Mr Miliband's good performance might worry Mr Brown as the Foreign Secretary is seen as a possible alternative leader.
If I were Mr Brown I would have felt some relief that he had someone advancing his case robustly. As far as Mr Miliband's leadership ambitions are concerned, I suspect they are more developed since last summer when he wisely resisted the calls for him to stand, but they will not be helped by some wild challenge in the febrile months ahead. My guess is that Mr Miliband will wait until a vacancy arises and that will not be for some time yet. Mr Brown did not wait 10 years to enter Number Ten to give it up in the darkness of his current nightmare.
Anyway Mr Miliband is not ready. His recent article for the Times about the need for a new synthesis between liberalism and social democracy did not meet the criteria I referred to earlier about the need for accessibility. The article bordered on the incomprehensible. Another for the News of the World about the importance of appearing on the side of voters did not lead anywhere at all. Still at least he is daring to think and to speak.
Other cabinet ministers must make more of the space. In some cases Mr Brown must make sure they do. One of the lessons he has so far failed to learn from John Major's successful leadership between 1990 and the 1992 election is the need to have a big hitter on the media putting the case for the Government and tearing into the opposition.
Chris Patten was the somewhat unlikely figure who did the business for Mr Major. Who could play that role now? Possibly Alan Johnson, who has an endearing interview style, while Ed Miliband should be placed in a department where he can show that government makes a difference to people's lives, a theme of his recent speeches. He is one of the few ministers who dares to put the case for the state, or a responsive state as he calls it.
If I were Ed Balls I would evangelise more about fair admissions for secondary schools and better training opportunities for late teenagers in spite of the onslaught he got the other week from a range of sources when he dared to argue against selection in schools: better to breathe and be attacked than not to breathe at all.
There is another reason why cabinet ministers need to grow for more than their own sakes. If Labour were to lose an election tomorrow there is not a single candidate capable of becoming an effective leader. Even in 1983 after the party's most calamitous defeat in recent times, Labour had the choice of several figures with the potential to be outstanding leaders. Over the next two years several cabinet ministers must decide whether to come alive or die along with the prospects for their party.Reuse content