The next two months will be dominated by one man – Gordon Brown. For the Conservatives it will be like going back to 1997 when no one, not even their mothers, wanted to hear from them. The media will ignore their every word, no matter how relevant, on the mark or controversial. It’s Gordon’s time and Conservatives had better get used to it.
This two month interregnum is, however, full of advantages for David Cameron and he should use the time to best effect. In all likelihood we are now nearly half way through this Parliament. It’s now a good time for him to sit back, take stock and plan for the next stage. If the first 18 months of his leadership have been about rebranding, the next eighteen months need to be about preparing for government.
The policy commissions will all have reported by the end of the year. Some will be embraced, some will be ignored. Several will clash. This will provide many opportunities to demonstrate that the Conservative Party continues to change as some ageing policies continue to be jettisoned overboard. Oliver Letwin’s slightly incomprehensible but important speech to Policy Exchange this week hinted that the Commissions should concentrate on a social rather than an economic framework. This seems a vaguely socialist notion at first sight and will need a great deal more explanation – preferably in language that non Oxbridge Old Etonians are able to understand.
In the mid 1990s John Major’s government used to ridicule Tony Blair’s shadow cabinet for having no experience of government. Gordon Brown will play the same trick on David Cameron. William Hague is the only one of David Cameron’s current shadow cabinet to have served in John Major’s cabinet. Several others, Liam Fox and David Davis among them, served at Minister of State level. Does this matter? Labour insiders say that the biggest weakness of their first year in power was that very few of them knew what to expect and were left reeling by the civil service. Cameron must make sure this does not happen to him.
I spent a couple of hours yesterday calculating the average age of David Cameron’s Shadow Cabinet and then comparing it to Margaret Thatcher’s Shadow Cabinet in 1977. At the ripe old age of 57 David Davis is the oldest member of the Cameron Shadow Cabinet, whose average age is 48. Margaret Thatcher’s Shadow Cabinet’s average age was 54, with five members in their sixties and one, Lord Hailsham, seventy.
When Cameron reshuffles his team in July, as he surely will, he should be careful not just to promote young MPs in his own image. The electorate will want reassurance that he has a balanced team which looks ready to govern. The Blair shadow cabinet of 1995 contained at least eight or nine people whom the electorate could well imagine running a government department. This is one area in which David Cameron would be well advised to take his lead from Blair.
One man with huge experience, personal charm and immense ability is David, now Lord, Trimble. He recently joined the Conservative benches in the Lords and would be a hugely impressive addition to the Shadow Cabinet. He is only 62, and is very keen to play an active part in politics on the UK mainland. He may not feel ready just yet for a front bench role, but surely that moment will come before the election.
Others who may reasonably expect preferment and have been around a bit include the battle-hardened local government spokesman Eric Pickles. He has played a leading part in restoring the Tories’ local government base and despite his bunter-like appearance is an accomplished media performer. As a blunt northerner, it would also be a signal to the Party in the North that they have another champion at the top table..
Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Attorney General is another who exudes competence and decency. His work on diversity issues and his impressive style at the Despatch Box ought to make him a shoo-in for the new Ministry of Justice position.
Of the newer MPs, everyone expects to see the intellectual powerhouse Michael Gove and the media-savvy Ed Vaizey at the top table. Don’t be surprised if they are joined by the Shadow Minister for Disabled People Jeremy Hunt, Nick Herbert, Julie Kirkbride and the quietly impressive Shailesh Vara and Maria Miller..
Finally, a note of caution. One or two junior level Tory spokesmen have already started briefing Sunday newspaper journalists about their own respective merits and the faults of others. Sadly they have already demonstrated their unfitness for promotion by leaving too many fingerprints. The art of self-discipline is still something which some Tory MPs still need to learn. After the last fifteen years you’d have thought it might have sunk in by now.
David Cameron should not rush to reshuffle his pack. He should wait until Gordon Brown has announced his own new Cabinet line-up. There is no advantage in pre-empting him. Cameron is said to hate reshuffles. This is a good thing. There’s nothing worse than reshuffling too often. It’s usually a sign of weakness. In his July reshuffle he should ditch those who haven’t performed without a second thought and replace them with a mixture of experience, competence, and youth. In that way Cameron can demonstrate he is preparing to govern.