Shadow Cabinet hokey-cokey: right leg in, left leg out

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More than 30 years have gone by since people were so confident that Labour was going to form the next government. That is why the row about whether there should be elections this year to the Shadow Cabinet (strictly, the Parliamentary Committee) of the Labour Party is, in a sense, welcome news for Mr Tony Blair. Elections there will be, later this month, instead of in November. In less politically prosperous times, the fate of Ms Harriet Harman, bound to the rails as the wrath of the parliamentary party approaches, would have left even the softest hearted political columnist unmoved.

Ms Harman is, however, one of Mr Blair's young ladies, as is Dr Marjorie ("Mo") Mowlam, the femme fatale of the People's Party. He wants them to have starring roles in his big production. He is less keen on thrusting Mrs Margaret Beckett to the centre of the stage. But he will have to give her some job. After all, she was once, as she insisted was made clear at the time, Leader of the Labour Party and not merely acting leader between the death of John Smith and the election of Mr Blair. She could have remained deputy leader under Mr Blair (though he might not have relished the prospect) if she had not vaingloriously contested both leadership and deputy leadership in 1994 - how long ago it all now seems! - so allowing Mr John Prescott to run for and win the deputy leadership.

As the editor could say at this point, that's enough Margaret Beckett. But I should like none the less to add a little more. Though she is not among my favourite politicians, she did once serve in real departments (the Whips Office and Education) in real governments in 1974-79. So did Dr Jack Cunningham, Miss Joan Lestor, Mr Michael Meacher and Dr Gavin Strang. Indeed, Miss Lestor has form as long as your arm, going back to 1969, at Education likewise.

This experience seems to be of little account to Mr Blair. However, he did appoint Dr Cunningham to the Shadow Cabinet even though he had not been elected. He appointed also Mr Derek Foster, the Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (I do not know what he is supposed to do with himself all day long) and Mr Andrew Smith, the Shadow Chief Secretary.

There are altogether 18 elected members of the Shadow Cabinet. They are supplemented by the Shadow Chief Whip, Mr Donald Dewar, by the leader and his deputy, and by the three appointed members. If we add the two peers who will be necessary, almost certainly Lord Irvine as Lord Chancellor and Lord Richard as leader of the Lords, we have a Labour cabinet of 26. This is too large.

Under a parliamentary party standing order of 1980, an incoming Labour prime minister must have in his first cabinet all those who were elected to the Parliamentary Committee. Mr Blair could still keep the cabinet to 22, a reasonable size, by jettisoning the three appointed members. One of the remaining 18 would also have to sacrifice his or her place to Mr Dewar, who would probably become Leader of the House. It would certainly be a waste of his abilities if he remained Chief Whip, a post traditionally outside the Cabinet.

The Shadow Cabinet has risen to 18 because of the rule compelling four votes to go to women. This may be justifiable, or it may not. But its consequence, combined with the change requiring a Labour prime minister to accommodate all elected members of the Shadow Cabinet in the real one, has been to deprive Mr Blair of a freedom he could legitimately claim. In March 1974, the last occasion when a Labour cabinet was formed after an election, Harold Wilson included all 12 members of the Shadow Cabinet but added five more. True, Mr Blair does not have to place his colleagues in the departments in which they used to specialise. Nor is there anything to prevent him reshuffling his cabinet next day. But this would make everyone look silly, notably Mr Blair. The feeling at Westminster is that he will simply ignore the rule. He has certainly ignored numerous other rules already and got away with it.

I think this would be bad for the Labour Party and for Mr Blair as well. The party has always believed that the rule book is mightier than the rifle butt. This is an enlightened message which has so far failed to penetrate Northern Ireland, maybe because the party has deliberately and - in my opinion - mistakenly refused to participate in the politics of that unhappy province. Nothing is easier than for educated persons to mock "I move the reference back", "I must consult my executive" and the rest of it. But the tumid phrases and tedious procedures have a long and honourable history, going back to the artisans' societies of the early 19th century.

It is not a story of which Mr Blair much cares to remind himself - or, still more, to remind others. It would be better to repeal the standing order. It could easily be done. But it would cause trouble. Therefore Mr Blair will do as he likes when the time comes. He will almost certainly have Ms Harman in his new production, though not necessarily at Health.

He could even have her in the Shadow Cabinet, on the principle which has already benefited Dr Cunningham, Mr Foster and Mr Smith. Indeed, another Smith - John - reappointed her to the post she had occupied before being forced off the Shadow Cabinet in an earlier election. Altogether I cannot see why the Harriet Harman problem is supposed to be so acute. I certainly cannot understand why the brothers on the back benches, or some of them, are so intent on crushing her beneath their advancing wheels, merely for sending her son to a modest selective day school in Surrey. It is not as if she intended to send the poor lad to Eton or Winchester. It might be easier for her if she did. Nor is it as if the party had a policy of extirpating all selective schools. On the contrary: the schools are to continue, subject only to a vote of the parents.

Moreover - so I am asked almost weekly - why should there be one rule for Ms Harman's son and another for Mr Blair's? The latter is going to the London Oratory School, eight miles from his leafy Islington abode. The stock answer is that it is a non-selective Roman Catholic secondary school. But from my inquiries, it is about as non-selective as the Garrick Club, which likewise does not require its entrants to pass a written examination before being admitted.

Anyway, Ms Harman will be in the cabinet. So will Mr Gordon Brown as Chancellor. Mr Robin Cook will be Foreign Secretary, though he would like to be Chancellor. Mr Prescott will have to be given a big job too. It will probably be the Home Office, which will mean a move for Mr Jack Straw either to Education or to Environment. No one will mind very much except Mr Straw. What the comrades really will mind will be a cabinet post for Mr Peter Mandelson. After Ms Harman, Mr Mandelson will be Mr Blair's next test of what has come to be called leadership in the New Labour Party.

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