Contenders for Blair's cumbersome Cabinet

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The Independent Online
When Harold Wilson formed his first Cabinet in 1964, he was able to call on only two ministers who had served in a previous Cabinet, Patrick Gordon Walker and Jim Griffiths. When Mr Tony Blair forms his first Cabinet in 1997, as most people assume he will, he will not be able to call on anybody with that qualification. Indeed, only four elected members of what the French felicitously call le cabinet fantome have government experience of any kind: Mrs Margaret Beckett, Dr Jack Cunningham, Dr Gavin Strang and Mr Michael Meacher.

None of them is what one might call close to Mr Blair. With some that would be an understatement. None is likely to occupy a position of much prominence in Mr Blair's administration. But the curious thing is this. We have not - or not yet - heard the Conservative cry which was current in 1964 and which Wilson was to stigmatise scornfully as "They haven't got the chaps".

It turned out to be an absurd accusation. Wilson's first Cabinet included James Callaghan, Barbara Castle, Richard Crossman and Denis Healey (Tony Benn, Anthony Crosland and Roy Jenkins were to come in later). As I have written before, "able" is not a word I specially like. It is the kind of word used by Sir Humphrey Appleby or by Mr William Keegan's creation Sir Douglas Corridor. "Able to do what?" is the question I feel like asking. Some people I have heard described as "able" could hardly do up their own shoelaces, still less order a cup of coffee for themselves in Calais.

But if we are to have the wretched word at all, I should say that there is only one member of the Shadow Cabinet who is as able as any of the seven Labour ministers I have just mentioned. He is Mr Robin Cook. Alas, this will make Mr Cook even more distrusted than he is already by Mr Blair and Mr Gordon Brown, who additionally distrust each other. But that cannot be helped.

There is also Mr Donald Dewar, the Labour Chief Whip, but he is not an elected member of the Shadow Cabinet. Whether he will remain as Chief Whip of a Labour government or be given a seat in the Cabinet, presumably as Lord President and Leader of the House, remains to be seen. The Chief Whip, who bears the titles both of Patronage Secretary and of Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, is never in the Cabinet. Yet he (in neither party has there ever been a she) attends most of its meetings. I cannot make out the reason for this: not, I mean, for the Chief Whip's frequent attendance at Cabinet, which is understandable enough, particularly in these difficult times, but rather for his exclusion from the Cabinet. There seems to be an element of fraudulence here.

Mr Dewar's position is interesting not only because he is one of the few interesting people in Labour or, indeed, in any other form of politics today. Whether he is in or (as Chief Whip) out of the Cabinet also affects the numbers game. I have been into this question several times before. I am sorry, but I am afraid it cannot be avoided. There it is.

In 1980 the parliamentary party changed its Standing Orders to require an incoming Labour Prime Minister to include all elected members of the Shadow Cabinet in the first real one. There was no requirement on him either to accommodate them in their previous fictitious departments or to retain them in their real, new posts for any specified time. In theory Mr Blair could satisfy the rules by appointing all the elected members of the Shadow Cabinet and having a reshuffle 24 hours later; which, as Euclid used to say, is absurd.

I always thought that this change had been engineered by Mr Benn and his chums. But Mr Gerald Kaufman pointed out in a letter to this paper that it had not been. For this correction I am grateful to Mr Kaufman, who had been opposed to the change. Even so, when it was made in 1980 the Shadow Cabinet contained only 12 elected members. Today there are 19. I list them in the briefest possible form to save space:

Beckett, Blunkett, Brown, Clark, Clarke, Cook, Cunningham, Davies, Dobson, Harman, Meacher, Mowlam, Robertson, Short, Andrew Smith, Chris Smith, Strang, Straw, Taylor. They sound like the old Trumpton programme. We must add Mr Blair as Prime Minister and Mr John Prescott as Leader of the House or even Home Secretary.

Mr Prescott's future is giving Mr Blair more worry than anyone else's. The least of those worries is whether he should be made Deputy Prime Minister. This is a largely honorific title, as Mr Michael Heseltine has convincingly demonstrated, hard though he has tried to persuade us otherwise. The lesson has not been lost on Mr Prescott, who quite reasonably wants a proper department. The question is: in which china shop does Mr Blair think he can safely be let loose?

This brings the Cabinet up to 21. If we add, as we must, Lord Richard as Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the Lords, and Lord Irvine as Lord Chancellor, we have a Cabinet of 23. This is a perfectly reasonable number. In practice Mr Blair has one additional place to play with. He could give it to Mr Dewar and appoint his deputy, Mr Nick Brown, Chief Whip. But he is also obligated to the former Chief Whip, Mr Derek Foster, whom he persuaded to step down to make way for Mr Dewar. Mr Foster, as a reward, was promptly helped up on to another plinth labelled "Duchy of Lancaster (Public Service)", whatever that may mean.

Mr Foster is in the Shadow Cabinet but is not an elected member of it. If he is accommodated in the real Cabinet along with Mr Dewar, with Mr Brown as Chief Whip outside it, we have a Cabinet of 25, which is distinctly on the unwieldy side. There is still no place for the spirited Ms Janet Anderson, who is a non-elected member of the Shadow Cabinet in charge of women. Nor is there one for Mr Peter Mandelson, who (as the boxing posters of my youth used to put it) needs no introduction and who, together with the widely admired Mr Brian Wilson, is in charge of "election planning".

We have it on the authority of Ms Clare Short, speaking on Newsnight a few weeks ago, that Mr Blair intends to comply with the 1980 Standing Order and appoint all the elected members of the Shadow Cabinet to the real one. Admittedly Ms Short is not the first person you would think of if you were asked to nominate someone who knew the inner workings of Mr Blair's mind. Who would that be, I wonder? Mr Mandelson, Lord Irvine, Mrs Blair or one of those priests of his?

No matter. Ms Short had been a member of a committee or anyway of a group that had been charged with looking at Standing Orders. This task had been undertaken primarily in relation to the new and somewhat absurd "disciplinary code". But the group had also specifically examined the 1980 change and concluded that it should stand. Ms Short implied that Mr Blair had accepted the conclusion.

The result is that Mr Blair is left either with a Cabinet containing numerous characters who, as C R Attlee used to say when dismissing ministers, are "not up to it", or with one which is so large as to be cumbersome and which may also contravene complicated legislation. Clearly the Standing Order should have been changed and Mr Blair given a free hand.