by Atul Hatwal
Boom! There have been fireworks at the start the year from the shadow cabinet: a blaze of 30 press releases per week for the past six weeks, more stories generated proactively than ever before and a couple of urgent questions in the House of Commons for good measure.
The best team performance since the shadow cabinet league began.
But for all this activity, there is one star turn that stands out: Andy Burnham. He has shone as never before.
Although Ed Miliband has grabbed many of the headlines on the NHS with his attacks on David Cameron at PMQs, it’s the shadow secretary of state for health who has made this campaign a Labour-led fight.
Since the last league update in the second week of January, Andy Burnham has put out 31 press releases. That’s an average of more than five a week for the past six weeks. Clearly the government meltdown over the passage of Andrew Lansley’s bill has helped, but for Labour it would have been all too easy to relax and let the various health interest groups lead the charge
Instead Andy Burnham’s relentless pressure has ensured Labour has forced its way to the forefront of the campaign.
And he’s not just followed up on government gaffes or dramas around knife-edge parliamentary votes, Burnham has generated a range of his own stories, from helping drive the e-petition on dropping the bill past 100,000 signatures to obtaining a leaked letter from the NHS deputy chief executive to senior NHS managers warning on waiting times.
It’s hard to comprehend the impact of such a ferocious assault on Andrew Lansley.
Every working day for the past six weeks he will have got out of bed knowing that waiting for him in the office, will be another story, with another Labour quote, hammering him.
It will have been personally traumatic.
Despite the stiff upper lip stoicism Lansley displays for the cameras, Andy Burnham’s onslaught will have had a major impact on his confidence, and the faith of Number 10 in their health secretary.
Politics is a pressurised business. But the players are only human. It would be super-human to operate under this level of stress and not make unforced errors, and neither Andrew Lansley or David Cameron are super-human.
Whether it’s yet another verbose Lansley rationalisation for the change, or a tetchy, red-faced Cameron at the despatch box, Burnham’s impact is evident.
It’s hard to recall, but just under a year ago, when the government announced the pause in the progress of the health bill, it was widely regarded as a Lib Dem triumph. Labour was seen in a supporting role.
The radical change in dynamic is largely the result of Andy Burnham’s efforts.
If the shadow secretary of state for health has been the star performer over the past weeks, he has had more than ample support from several of his colleagues who have also raised their respective games. Three performances are particularly notable – Maria Eagle, Caroline Flint and Vernon Coaker.
Maria Eagle has been consistent and insistent in holding Justine Greening accountable at transport. A welter of written parliamentary questions combined with just over two press releases a week has had the department scrambling to explain itself.
Eagle’s highlight was to close down the government’s room for manoeuvre on Network Rail’s bonuses at the start of February.
The government clearly wanted to allow the bonuses to be awarded. They claimed the decision was out of their hands. It was down to the board. As the government’s representative on the board, Justine Greening was going to vote against, but she was just one of many shareholders.
Maria Eagle had the facts. She had proof that the bonuses required prior government agreement. Despite the weasel words from the government, Greening’s position unravelled. Suddenly, as with Hester, the board decided, at the last minute, not to accept the bonuses.
What a strange coincidence.
Caroline Flint executed one of those elegant attacks on the Tories which combined every aspect of her role – parliamentary questions, despatch box accountability and media work.
For weeks she has been pressing the government on their botched plans to cut the feed-in tariff scheme for solar energy. This programme pays a higher rate for energy generated from solar sources to incentivise increased supply.
Following a slew of written parliamentary questions that have revealed the chaos at the department for energy and climate change on this policy, Flint caught them with an urgent question after they tried to sneak out yet another revision of the policy without announcing it in parliament.
The ensuing exchange across the despatch box, which was widely covered in the media, showed how she has the government on the run, in three ways.
First, Ed Davey, the new secretary of state was nowhere to be seen. He ducked the challenge leaving it to his minister of state, Greg Barker. Telling.
Second, Flint’s central charge that the government were cutting the value of the feed in tariff by 70% in 6 months was not directly rebutted. For a government that is saddled with Cameron’s claim of aspiring to be the “greenest ever”, it was yet another damning fact that they seem to have simply accepted.
Third, the figures she cited on expected job losses of 15-20,000 were point blank ignored by the minister. To not have any statistics to quote in defence or even to obscure the opposition’s charge is an extraordinary indictment of the weakness of both the department and their case.
It’s rare for there to be a clear winner in these types of exchanges. But this was one of those occasions.
Last, but not least, is Vernon Coaker. As secretary of state for Northern Ireland, he didn’t ask more parliamentary questions or issue more press releases than most of his colleagues. Nor did he dominate the chamber in a pivotal debate.
But Vernon Coaker’s performance is notable because of what he has done with his brief.
Shadowing a devolved region is difficult. The easy option is to sit back and do nothing. After all there is a devolved government that is the focus for activity. Yet Coaker has consistently asked parliamentary questions, issued press releases and fulfilled the primary responsibility of every shadow cabinet member – to hold the government to account.
Unlike his predecessor, Shaun Woodward, or his counterpart in Scotland, Margaret Curran who seems to have done almost nothing in amassing just two points in the league over the past six weeks, Vernon Coaker has turned his unfashionable brief into a proper job for the first time this parliament.
For that alone he deserves recognition. Work ethic, application and commitment are not just for the glamour roles. They matter regardless of brief and Coaker is a good example of the best of these.
Traditionally the first weeks of the year are always ones where the shadow cabinet are particularly active. A combination of a busy parliamentary schedule with a post-Christmas energy rush seems to galvanise the front bench.
This was the case last year, but this year the bar has been set higher. It’s been a hard working, high impact effort so far.
The challenge for Ed Miliband and his advisers will be to ensure this is not the peak but the start of a new upward trend.
Atul Hatwal is associate editor at Uncut