Dan Hodges deconstructs the new shadow cabinet

ANOTHER HURDLE cleared. The lot of the new leader. Evade the obstacles, real and imagined.

First conference speech. Check. First shadow cabinet. Check. First grilling by Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby. Tough one. But check.

As with every other make or break moment Ed Miliband will face over the next few months, yesterday’s was definitive. “It will test his maturity and decisiveness”, warned the Independent.

Well, unless he was planning to order the shadow cabinet to turn up to their first meeting in fancy dress, or delay the announcement till boxing day, Ed was always likely to scrape home this time. An examination of his leadership skills? Yes. But the reintroduction of shadow cabinet elections ensured that it was a straightforward multiple choice, rather than a full blown thesis.

Put aside the hype. Ed Miliband played a relatively weak hand well.

There were not any stunning surprises. As soon as it was briefed on the Tuesday morning of conference that the new leader was distancing himself from “no return to boom and bust”, the door effectively closed on Ed Balls as shadow chancellor. Yvette Cooper was obviously a serious contender, as was John Healey. But it would have meant a dramatic increase in front bench responsibility for either, at a time when perceived inexperience at the top is a Labour weakness.

Home affairs will be a major battleground, and the liberal dog whistles emanating from Team Ed have unsettled the New Labour bulldogs. Sending Ed Cojones to dispense some rough justice to the Tory home affairs team was smart politics. Though he’ll need to be careful not to be seen to bully Theresa May in the way he did the hapless Michael Gove.

Douglas Alexander was a wise choice to mark Iain Duncan-Smith, whose ‘quiet man’ caricature masks a dangerous political opponent. Jim Murphy was a similarly astute appointment at defence, though he must be given the latitude to roam more widely.  His portfolio should be expanded to shadow minister for the Today programme.

Flint v Pickles will be the hottest ticket in Westminster. The hard nosed, street fighting, bruiser. Against the Tory communities spokesman. I genuinely fear for Eric. So long as Caroline can be persuaded to steer clear of the Observer’s chaise longue.

The rest are good solid appointments. Eddie’s Eagles will do solid work at shadow chief secretary and transport. Sadiq Khan will pit his political guile against Ken Clarke’s political girth. Harriet will ascend to join the Labour deity in Clare Short’s old job at international development. Though she will also bring judgment and humility to the role.

Much has been made of the inequities of the system, but in truth, very little cream has spilt from the shadow cabinet churn. The notable exception is Pat McFadden, whose experience of working directly for two new Labour leaders (Smith and Blair) and indirectly for a third (Brown) must not be squandered.

But aside from the practicalities of the appointments themselves, we’ve learnt little new as a result of Ed Miliband’s first spin at shad cab musical chairs. Those of us used to the Kremlinology that attended Blair’s appointments; “Nick Brown’s got agriculture, Milburn’s got chief sec. Which is best? Pigs or paper clips”? are feeding off scraps.

Will Straw described this as a “coalition cabinet”, and other commentators have remarked how the appointment of David Miliband’s and Ed Balls’ supporters to senior roles represent a move away from the tribalism of the past. That may well be the aspiration. But only 9 of the 45 initial shadow cabinet candidates, and 5 of the 19 candidates who were successfully elected, made Ed their first choice in the leadership ballot. The hard truth is that there simply weren’t enough Ed Miliband supporters to go around. And those that were elected were deemed too junior to be entrusted with major briefs.

Only Johnson’s appointment is truly politically significant. On one level it provides a clear insight into the path Ed intends to  follow as he scouts for stable ground on deficit reduction. As one former Downing Street aide said to me: “It shows he’s not going to have any truck with the deficit deniers”.

It also represents the first time since the election that Ed that has been prepared to disappoint his own base. Yvette, in particular, would have been a popular generation Ed pin up. The last time Alan Johnson symbolised a new generation, Harold Wilson was prime minister, Lyndon Johnson was president and Ed wasn’t even in a twinkle in Ralph Miliband’s eye.

But yesterday was not a day for fresh insights. Instead, it was a day which confirmed the prevailing political realities. And the reality facing Ed Miliband is that he faces severe limitations of time and political space.

As a Team Ed insider conceded, the optimum strategy would have been to shape a shadow cabinet more fully in his own image. At one stage there was even talk of abolishing shadow cabinet elections all together. But the nature of his election, and the reaction to it, means that for now he doesn’t have sufficient capital to make the bold moves. Nor can he afford to give his team months to bed in, or grant relatively inexperienced team members time to feel the way into high profile new roles. Team Ed knows that its apprenticeship, if there is to be one, must be short.

On the positive side, man to man, women to women, the match ups are strong. Johnson v Osborne. Cooper v Hague. Balls v May. Burnham v Gove. In each of those blue ribbon portfolios, on paper at least, Ed Miliband will expect his lieutenants to hold their own, or better. And in Hague, Gove and Fox, the Tories are already carrying wounded men.

Ed Miliband was never likely to fall at this particular hurdle. Nor was he ever likely to stretch his legs and power round the bend. The track is still too congested.

Next up, prime minister’s questions. Then  the CSR.  Then the rally against the cuts. Each represents  the ultimate and  defining test.

Until the next one.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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3 Responses to “Dan Hodges deconstructs the new shadow cabinet”

  1. A great read! Just hope Alan Johnson is good at his homework and can counter his inexperience in this field by quickly getting his head round the minutiae of State economics; the Tories will expose him if he does not.

  2. Dan Hodges says:

    …it wouldn’t do any harm for Labour Treasury Ministers to park the self deprecating humour for a while…

  3. james says:

    But wait! It’s not as if orthodox economists have had much of worth to say during the last few years. “This is just a financial crisis, it won’t affect real economy.” Then: “Erm, yes, but there won’t be a recession.” Then: “Oh, gosh, it won’t be a bad recession.”

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