August is a strange month in politics. Often, as leaders try to regain some semblance of normal family life on holiday, the parties field their B-teams. This should be a chance for lesser-known stars to shine. All that this summer has done so far, however, is expose the paucity of talent in all three main parties.
The silly season pantomime of senior ministers taking turns to mind the shop while the Prime Minister is in a waxed jacket in the Lake District has occupied the newspapers, including this one. Yet the main lesson of the beauty parade in which Harriet Harman, Peter Mandelson and now Alistair Darling have taken part is that only Lord Mandelson, the one unelected politician among them, has the stature and confidence to deputise for Gordon Brown with any authority.
Ms Harman and Mr Darling have their qualities, to be sure. She has a certain unembarrassable persistence; he exudes calm attention to detail. That both are unsackable, however, owes more to Mr Brown's weakness than their strengths. "Strength in depth" is not a phrase that is easily applied to the rest of the Cabinet either. In an opinion poll last weekend, 12 per cent named David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, and another 12 per cent Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, as best to lead Labour if Mr Brown stood down.
Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, and Lord Mandelson were runners-up, each on 7 per cent. Again, these are politicians of some ability, although their deficiencies can sometimes be more evident. Mr Miliband, for example, was injudicious in his support forANC "terrorism" the other day. Mr Johnson is perhaps the only oven-ready prime ministerial candidate in the Cabinet, which is why the bookmakers have him the runaway favourite to succeed Mr Brown.
Of the other ministers pushed blinking into the August headlines, the less said the better. Andy Burnham, the new Health Secretary, is said to be a better-than-competent minister, but he comes across on TV as a junior and not-very-well-briefed party press officer. Bob Ainsworth, the new Defence Secretary, has undoubtedly suffered from snobbish prejudice because of the way he speaks, but even if he uttered perfect Sandhurst we suspect that he would be unable to shake off the suspicion that he was wildly over-promoted by mistake in the June reshuffle.
Not that matters are any better among the opposition parties. It is striking that, in the two media kerfuffles that have struck the Conservative party this month, namely Mr Hannan's unhelpful description of the NHS as "exactly a Marxist system" and Alan Duncan's unwise mock-complaint about MPs having to live "on rations", it is only Mr Cameron's personability that has kept the show on the road. William Hague, the Tory leader's "deputy in all but name", could not have done it. Nor could George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, a clever man that has yet to perform that mysterious alchemy of conveying gravitas on television. Some of the shadow cabinet are impressive, notably Michael Gove, the education spokesman. Kenneth Clarke is a proper statesman, of course, but looks as if he has been imported from another era.
All in all, the drying-up of August has revealed the gene pool of British politics to be alarmingly shallow. It is devoutly to be hoped that the Great Post-Expenses Clear-Out of MPs at the next election will see the reservoir topped up with an unprecedented influx of fresh talent.Reuse content