by Dan Hodges
Strange. There I was sitting by the phone, waiting for ennoblement and a fast track onto the Labour front bench, and nothing. Not a peep. Our leader really does have a ruthless streak.
That glaring omission not withstanding, last week’s reshuffle already had the potential for disaster. Following the catastrophe that was party conference, which included an admission from Ed Miliband that he doesn’t even know the name of the guy who’s likely to be heading his party in Scotland, you half expected to wake up to find Chaka Khan had been asked to join the shadow cabinet.
Reshuffles in opposition, particularly those early in a parliament, always have a bit of a deck chairs on the Titanic feel about them. But coming so soon after Miliband’s conference speech vanished with all hands beneath the dark waters of the Mersey, this was more like rearranging the deck chairs on the Carpathia.
To be fair though, Ed Miliband managed to conduct the first independent appointments to his shadow cabinet with a degree of political finesse. The ambition to strike a balance between youth and experience was realised. Key appointments, Chuka Umunna, Rachel Reeves, Michael Dugher and Liz Kendall, are all media savvy operators who have managed to demonstrate over the past twelve months that some substance lies beneath their greasepaint. And the delicate political balance between former Blairites and Brownites has been maintained.
Some have argued the promotion of Dugher, Jon Trickett, Stewart Wood and Tom Watson is evidence of a Brownite ascendency, but that is to overstate the case. “Dugher’s a sensible politician”, said one Blairite shadow cabinet insider, “and more importantly, he’s a nice guy. We can have a decent relationship with him”. Although viewed less warmly by the Blairites, Wood and Trickett have been established members of Milband’s inner-circle since the leadership election, whilst Tom Watson now exists on an ethereal plain, far above the hum drum daily politicking of Westminster.
Nor was there the great Blairite cull that some had been predicting, and one or two Ed Miliband supporters advocating. Caroline Flint was demoted but not axed, and Ivan Lewis, who has actually built a good relationship with Miliband during their work on phone-hacking, was moved sideways, despite his controversial plan to arrest any journalist not conversant in every verse of the Red Flag.
That’s not to say the reshuffle isn’t without political risk. Youth hasn’t so much been given its head as had the reins and stirrups removed and been fitted with rocket boosters. Over the medium term that will create tensions amongst those backbenchers too long in the tooth to find a natural affinity with Generation Ed, and piles significant pressure on young shoulders. “We knew we had a robust policy on youth unemployment”, said one shadow cabinet insider caustically, “but Chuka’s appointment shows some people are taking it a bit too literally”.
Ed Miliband’s team are unrepentant. “Age is irrelevant”, said one, “If you’re good enough, you’re old enough. The 2010 intake was very talented, and we’re not going to apologise for that”.
Few apologies are likely to be extended to those exiting the shadow cabinet either. John Healey probably has greatest cause for complaint, and despite the ritualistic statements about family commitments, was angry at being forced to join the school run before he was pushed. Friends of the former shadow health minister point with some justification to the change in Labour’s poll ratings on the issue since his appointment, and mutter darkly about what they refer to as the influence of the “Gobshite Tendency” on Ed Miliband’s inner circle; “We were behind on the NHS last September and then 30 points ahead two weeks ago”, said one Healey ally bitterly.
John Denham had told his leader several weeks ago about his intention to step down from the front bench, and parliament, although he also experienced growing disillusion at his inability to break through the ring of steel erected by Ed Balls around Labour’s economic policy. “John was frustrated that none of what he’d proposed made it into either of the Eds’ conference speeches”, said a party source, “He’d spent a lot of time working on the business narrative, and he could see the dangers. He’s just hoping he may have a bit more influence as Ed’s PPS”.
Ed Miliband’s relatively deft, and to some ruthless, handling of the reshuffle doesn’t, however, change the political fundamentals. And the political fundamentals are grim.
His limited political capital left little scope for changes at the top of his team, and they are the only changes that stand any realistic chance of altering the political weather. It’s also noticeable that whilst the ranks of former Blairites and Brownites are undiminished, indeed have been reinforced, relatively few shadow cabinet chairs are occupied by true “Milibites”.
Nor can any amount of reshuffling hide the starkest truth of all: the shadow cabinet member with the biggest question marks hanging over their performance is the leader himself. “It’s desperate stuff”, said one shadow minister, “The individual appointments were fine, but everything he does at the moment smacks of weakness. The conference speech, the timing of the reshuffle, everything”.
That weakness is corrosive. It will also go a long way to determining how last week’s reshuffle is ultimately perceived. A strong leader in charge of a strong team is the political holy grail. But even a confident leader in charge of an underperforming team can sometimes find their stature enhanced through comparison.
Conversely, a weak leader in charge of a weak team is toxic. And a struggling leader who finds himself being outperformed by rising stars within his own shadow cabinet can find themselves damned by their colleagues’ success. Just look at the way the public’s admiration for John Smith haunted Neil Kinnock and Labour throughout the 1992 general election campaign.
The reality is that there are no rescue ships on Ed Miliband’s horizon. All the lifeboats are gone. The pumps are failing. His leadership is beginning to settle by the bow.
There are only two options. He can somehow find a way of steering his vessel to a safe harbour. Or he will have to make the lonely walk to his cabin, lock his door and await his fate.
The quality of his crew, ultimately, is immaterial. There are only so many deck-chairs; and a limited amount of ways, and time, to shuffle them.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.