Have some ministerial jobs become too hot to handle?

by Kevin Meagher

PHIL Woolas’ current predicament owes at least something to his being a tough immigration minister in the last government. With a large Muslim population in his Oldham backyard and with boundary changes making his marginal seat more ethnically diverse, his day job hardly endeared him to a big chunk of his local electorate. The rest is history.

Would Woolas have faced the same little local difficulty if he had not been immigration minister? And would he then have run the campaign he ran?

However this story eventually plays itself out, what it serves to remind us is that there are certain ministerial jobs that are not for the faint-hearted. Immigration minister is the obvious role that is always difficult for Labour politicians. It is the type of posting where you are not going to get any thanks, whatever you do. Too hardline for some, too wishy-washy for others.

Ironically, for such a complex issue, there are, ultimately, only three positions you can have on immigration. There is too much of it. Not enough of it. Or the balance is just right. You can discount the last option because no-one is ever happy with the status quo. Most people in the country opt for the first. Many in the Labour party for the second. On this issue, more than just about any other, you will never please all of the people all of the time.

Labour is, of course, instinctively sympathetic to the plight of refugees and immigrants. And justly so. But the hard reality is that not all deserve to stay. Most rational people accept that. Some, however, do not want to follow through the brutal logic.

Once upon a time you did not have to. Sounding tough about immigration was enough. But in a world of unprecedented global mass transit, “rhetorical tough” does not cut it. You either are either “genuinely tough” or you do not in fact have an immigration policy worthy of the name at all.

It really is as straightforward as that. But that does not make the lot of an immigration minister any easier. You have hard choices or impossible ones. Why on earth would anyone in Labour want the gig?

Simple really: it’s a tough job that tests the mettle of its occupant. If they survive, they prosper. Woolas’ immediate predecessors, Liam Byrne and Tony McNulty, both used their time in the role as a springboard to the cabinet. Woolas, too, may have gone on to greater things, but he faced a double whammy: loss of power in May and now loss of his own seat. So all the toughness got him neither thanks nor advancement.

But he gets to join a select club. Being a Labour home secretary, especially in the post 9/11 world, was another hard job to shine in. Again, many of the bread and butter issues won few friends on the liberal left: identity cards, control orders, 90-day detention. A cocktail of public policy hemlock.

So despite many of Labour’s biggest and best holding the role: Straw, Blunkett, Charles Clarke, John Reid, Jacqui Smith and Alan Johnson, few prospered. Wily Straw, tough Reid and smooth Johnson were the only ones to leave intact. And only Jack Straw ever went on to anything greater. A success rate for the postholders of just one in six.

Similarly, if Labour had won in May, there would have been a raft of jobs that would have been career cul-de-sacs. Who would thank a Labour health secretary presiding over real terms cuts to the health budget? Or a Labour defence secretary scuttling warships and Labour’s hard-won credentials on national security with it? And where would a Labour education secretary have swung the axe?

Or perhaps a Labour business secretary accepting the recommendation for higher tuition fees contained in Lord Browne’s report on university funding (a review Labour established). Would we have seen angry students kicking in the windows at Labour’s Victoria Street HQ instead?

This theory works on the other side of the aisle too. Liam Fox’s tactic during the recent strategic defence review was to put on a metaphorical suicide vest and dare No 10 and the Treasury to do their worst.

A budget-slashing Tory defence secretary is an oxymoron to the party’s backbenches. Fox knew it was “do or die” in his battle over spending cuts. He opted to make a fight of it and defend his turf. His tactic of sounding prepared to go down in a blaze of glory prevailed. He lives to fight another day.

Iain Duncan Smith’s radical plans for welfare reform – whatever anyone thinks about the relative merits or demerits – shows that he is similarly prepared to die in the last ditch driving through his proposals. Under Labour, work and pensions (nee social security) was a middle-ranking berth. Social as well as economic policy was under treasury lock and key. In effect, DWP stood not for “department of work and pensions” but “distributor of welfare payments”.

A procession of Labour secretaries of state passed through the role without leaving much of an imprint. The radical thinking dial was turned right down. Perhaps with good reason: picking fights there is a big undertaking. Pensioners? Disabled people? The workless? Any smart Labour minister knew there were few plaudits to be had on the left in risking a schism with groups like these. So none ever really did. As a result, “welfare reform” was more talked about than witnessed.

Frank Field recently said that Labour should have confronted disability rights protestors who chained themselves to the railings outside No 10 back in 1997 in protest at disability living allowance cuts. “A bold move Minister,” as Sir Humphrey used to warn. But boldness, as Field should know by now, is not how most people get to the top of British politics.

So, back to the question. If some ministerial jobs are becoming too hot to handle, will they become harder to fill? Fat chance. Like climbers on a quest to ascend a perilous mountain, there will always be glory-hunters ready to step over the frozen, broken corpse of their predecessor, believing they can do better.
That is the way of politics. But if Phil Woolas had been a minister of state in Defra, busying himself with a bovine flatulence action plan rather than working out which poor souls got to stay in the country and which did not, would he still be a Member of Parliament?

Kevin Meagher is a campaign consultant and former ministerial adviser.

Tags: , , , ,

5 Responses to “Have some ministerial jobs become too hot to handle?”

  1. Sunny H says:

    Gosh, isn’t it amazing how many people dismiss Phil Woolas’ fall as just ‘him being tough’ over ‘a difficult issue’… glossing over the fact that he lied and got found out; that he ran deliberately inflammatory leaflets; that there is a way to talk about immigration and race without being inflammatory and annoying the hell out of everyone (see Jon Cruddas, who ALSO has to campaign against the BNP).

    This sort of denialism doesn’t do the party any good.

  2. Igvan says:

    I agree. The author ignores the greatest cowardice of modern politicians and government ministers which is the ability to stand up to big business. Interest groups for pensioners,the disabled,immigrants etc represent VOTERS – time that they were remembered and considered instead of this constant pandering to Corporate power.

  3. Kevin says:

    Sunny – it must be chilly up there on the moral high ground at this time of year? As you know full well, the point I’m making is that the role of immigration minister leaves the incumbent between a rock and a hard place. Doubly so if your local electorate has big issues with the decisions you have been party too. If Phil Woolas had been a minister in less charged brief things might not have panned out in the way they did.

    Denialism is not something I am usually charged with!


  4. Considering Phil Woolas’ campaigning style going back to 1994, I’d say the chances of him doing something inflammatory were always pretty high.

    The job of immigration minister might have hurt his support amongst Muslim voters, but as I don’t know the Oldham area I can’t speculate on that. But I’d say it’s more that Woolas got immigration because he thrived on the confrontation, and it’s that love for confrontation that brought him down.

    That’s probably a bigger issue – that if some jobs are seen as too hot to handle, only hotheads will want the job or be considered for it, in the same way that Home Secretaries are almost always from the right of their parties.

  5. Henrik says:

    “…..Labour’s hard-won credentials on national security”

    All over the world, British servicemen and women double up in a gale of incredulous laughter.

    The worst of all possible worlds – send young men and women out to fight and die for nebulous causes in no way associated with the national interest and then refuse to fund the fighting (or their medical care) until shamed into partially doing the latter.

    The comrades have *nothing* to be proud of in the national security stakes.

Leave a Reply