If Johnson and Darling return to Labour’s frontbench, two other men are out

by Kevin Meagher

The continuing chatter about whether Alan Johnson should return to the shadow cabinet prompts the intriguing question: where would Ed Miliband put him?

In government, Johnson held a number of senior roles including stints as secretary of state for work and pensions, education, health and a final stint as home secretary. As one of Labour’s best known faces, he would surely command a decent perch.

None of his previous postings, however, looks a likely bet. Rising stars Rachel Reeves and Tristram Hunt are making inroads in the welfare and education briefs while Andy Burnham at health and Yvette Cooper at home affairs are too powerful to move without causing Ed Miliband a major headache. Both are solid performers and harbour leadership hopes if Miliband doesn’t manage to cross the threshold of Number Ten next May.

The remaining top roles, shadowing the Treasury and the Foreign Office, are filled by Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander. And they aren’t going anywhere.

Miliband may calculate that he can move anyone he likes in the interests of bringing back a popular figure like Johnson to add weight to his team ahead of the general election. Of course, the dilemma will be doubled if Alastair Darling also returns – assuming the ‘No’ campaign he is leading in Scotland prevails next month.

Johnson’s attributes are obvious enough. A natural communicator, his easy-going, man-in-the-street style contrasts sharply with the crafted but stilted approach of most of the rest of the shadow cabinet. No-one describes him as weird or boring.

Darling, meanwhile, has the distinction of serving in cabinet throughout the Blair and Brown years (a feat only equalled by Jack Straw and Gordon Brown himself). His credentials as a genuine heavyweight (Chuka Umunna describes Darling as one of the party’s “biggest beatsts” in an interview with this morning’s Daily Telegraph) together with his quiet, reassuring tone makes him a valuable asset as questions of trust and competence will be at the centre of the election campaign.

But creating amorphous, non-departmental roles for either man would be a cop-out. The shadow cabinet is large enough without bolting on people for the sake of it. This presents Ed Miliband with the difficulty of bringing back two men in senior roles without upsetting the gender balance of his shadow cabinet.

Indeed, as George Eaton notes over at the New Statesman, Miliband still needs to bring forward another woman or two to meet his pledge of ensuring gender parity in the shadow cabinet. So for Johnson and Darling to come in, two men have to go out.

The obvious choice would be Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary. It is not a slight on his competence or workrate (indeed, he is one of the best performers in Uncut’s shadow cabinet league).  He is, however, running to become Labour’s candidate for mayor of London in 2016 and will doubtless need to devote his time to this. There is the added fact that he will need to play to the activist gallery as he does so.

But it’s hard to see where the other male vacancy comes from. Chuka Umunna, Michael Dugher, Chris Leslie and Jon Cruddas have key general election roles. Owen Smith and Jim Murphy offer critical links to Wales and Scotland, respectively. Jon Trickett, meanwhile, is a valued working-class voice around the shadow cabinet table.

Only three other men remain. Hilary Benn is the longest-serving member of the shadow cabinet. Could he really be persuaded to make way for men older than him? This leaves Vernon Coaker at defence and Ivan Lewis at Northern Ireland. Neither is holding a frontline election portfolio, but both have made decent headway in what are traditionally difficult briefs for Labour.

But if Johnson and Darling are to return to the shadow cabinet, the law of natural selection means these big beasts will devour two other men. The question is, who?

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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23 Responses to “If Johnson and Darling return to Labour’s frontbench, two other men are out”

  1. DaveC says:

    I would welcome Darling but not Johnson, he Johnson, allowed commercial companies into the NHS which is why the Coalition are now destroying the NHS we all profess to love and cherish. I don’t think I am alone in my views that Johnson would be a disaster if he were to be brought back into the shadow cabinet.

  2. swatantra says:

    Exactly! The Old Order has to make way for the New.
    Its pure selfishness to hang on when others are just as capable or even more capable than you. So, Darling should consider a career in an Independent Scotland and Johnson maybe head a Re-Nationalised Rail concern, or something like it.
    Or consider being Goverornor Genereal of Australia or something like it.
    Look forward to newcomers Reeves Umunna and Creasy making their mark.

  3. Tafia says:

    And if you have to form a Coalition then it will be a darn site more than two that will be out – and the Lib Dems have a taste for it now they’ll expect a couple of senior posts such as Deputy PM and one of Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary or Chancellor.

    Plaid would expect Secretary of State for Wales, the SNP would expect Secretary of State for Scotland etc etc.

    How would Miliband salve the wounds from that? (purely rhetorical of course – the only way he’ll see the inside of No 10 post 2015 is as a painter & decorator – he won’t even be leader of HM Opposition, the knives are already being sharpened)

  4. Madasafish says:


    Ed Balls “is not going anywhere”..

    Based on his performance in Opposition – and in Government Ed balls should not be in the Shadow cabinet. He makes George Osborne look like a genius by comparison (he is not of course).

    Ed Balls has promised the Government will run a budget surplus by 2020… He’s certainly not the man to achieve it.

    And if he tries, NHS spending will be seriously curtailed.. Any suggestion that Andy Burnham could do that is risible after his ineptitude when faced with the mid Staffs killings.. ( Alan Johnson was involved as well).

    So Darling as Chancellor and Johnson? Well nice guy and all that but his track record as a Minister is hardly any good…..his tenure at the Treasury was marked by his lack of basic knowledge..and his lackluster performance.

    Sorry to rain on your parade.

  5. fortescue99 says:

    The obvious person to make way for Darling is Ed Balls. Clear election liability.

  6. John says:

    Balls has to go, ASAP

  7. John says:

    Balls has to go, ASAP
    Darling needs a job

  8. NickH says:

    I think it would be a pity if Darling went back to Westminster if he successfully lead the No vote to victory. If he ran for Holyrood as leader he’d justify much of Better Together’s argument that a Scottish Parliament matters and would give SNP a whupping.

    Johnson should definitely come back. And I think housing should be part of his brief. It require political charm and an ability to see how it plays with the marginals, two of his greatest strengths. It may seem underpowered but actually it’s a sign of how important it now is.

  9. Andrew K says:

    Dave, does the C stand for CroMagnon?

    The NHS is the envy of the world, except in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium . . . . .

  10. Harry says:

    Not Johnson. Craven Blairite who sacked his drugs adviser for giving true but unwelcome advice simply to placate Daily Mail voters.

  11. Robin Thorpe says:

    I don’t agree that Tristram Hunt is being successful with the Education brief. He has spread confusion rather than clarity over what Labour may do over free schools and academies and he has failed to successfully challenge Gove’s changes. Gove was forced out because of his own failure to communicate with teacher’s and unions, not from any action by Hunt. So Hunt is out for me and replaced by Johnson – who better to lead the refocus on apprentices and vocational rather than academic training?
    I also don’t think that Douglas Alexander has been a great success in the Foreign Office brief. I can’t recall a single point of difference or notional victory over the Tories. It may be that I have bias against him because I don’t like him on TV, but I just don’t like him. Keep him as general election co-ordinator or whatever so he saves face if needs be, but get rid of him too. Darling’s gravitas lends him perfectly to this role.
    I understand the reason you stated for sidelining Khan and while I agree that this also removes one of the more high-profile operators I think that he could go and be replaced by Emily Thornberry MP (with Stella Creasy taking Shadow Minister for London).
    BTW I think it unfair to blame Johnson for introducing private companies into the NHS; he may have been Health Secretary at the time but it would have been a collective decision made by cabinet on behalf of the Labour Party. I don’t agree with that policy either, but there is little point blaming one man for a corporate decision. Blame the NEC or NPF or whoever for not standing upto the cabinet at the time.

  12. Robin Thorpe says:

    NickH has a good point about Darling running as an MSP having campaigned for maintaining the union. He would make a good figurehead for the Scottish Labour Party.

  13. 07052015 says:

    Well if chuka wants darling back then he should give him his job.

  14. Jayson carmichael says:

    Darlings fantastic. Cameron is having holidays as darling does all his work for him in scotland

  15. Matt says:

    An excellent demonstration as to why quota politics is a really, really stupid idea, Kevin.

  16. Ex Labour says:

    Darling would be a welcome return, but you would have to play to his strengths i.e. economic and financial. That would mean Ed “Lasagne” Balls would have to go ….and thats no bad thing.

    However Johnson….no, no and thrice no ! Do you forget his incompetence in previous roles and his complete lack of understanding of finance and economics ? Whilst he is comfortable on Andrew Neil’s sofa as a pundit, a return to the top in any sort of a major role, particularly where he has to speak on matters economic would be a disaster.

    On the subject of women and the cabinet. Has this PC bollocks from Labour gone far enough ? It would seem that any woman will do, just to get a quota, for the Harman’s of this world.

  17. John Ried says:

    Ex Labour,so Johnson doesn’t know much on economics,aslong as he got a job,not involving economically why couldn’t he b up their,

    Harry,even a Diane Abbott agreed with Johnson’s on the drugs case,even though I don’t agree

  18. Mark Austin says:

    On the subject of Alistair Darling and th Scottish Parliament, it would be an excellent idea if he, or similar big beasts in all the main UK parties stood there. One of the problems with the Scottish Parliament—and one of the reasons for the SNPs successes was that when the Scottish Parliament was set up pretty well all the SNP “A” team stood for it, while, with the exception of Labour’s Donald Dewer all the other main parties top people all went to Westminster. This left them with a collection of has-beens and never-weres in the Scottish Parliament, with a leavening of those seeking a Westminster seat. Consequently, the SNP ran rings round them.

  19. Labour in exile says:

    Does anyone within the Labour party comprehend how ridiculous it seems to the general public to be selecting candidates for high office on the basis of their genitalia?

  20. Labour in exile says:

    Furthermore, with the increasing perception south of the border that Scotland has its own parliament and shouldn’t be telling the English what to do, it is questionable to what extent English voters will be willing to tolerate Scottish MPs in senior cabinet / shadow cabinet posts.

  21. Phil N says:

    I think Balls has to be replaced as potential Chancellor if Labour is to give any real impression of economic competence. Don’t know who should replace him though. I’m all for Darling having quite a senior role. I think Johnson might be an asset to the election campaign but I am not sure he merits a senior cabinet role again. Maybe Defence? He would be quite and talking to military types with his down to earth style.

  22. Derek Emery says:

    A budget surplus means income exceeds expenditure. Will that include interest payments on our humungous ever rising debt which BIS reckon will be at least 150% of GDP by 2020?

  23. Madasafish says:

    David Emery

    As the aim is to reduce the debt levels, then the answer has to be: yes.. Debt levels have to be included.

    If you take Ed Balls’ statement as gospel, then the next Labour Government (if it is one) will have to increase taxes and reduce expenditure on a scale which will make the current “austerity” look like a walk in the park .

    In 2010-11 UK Government spending was £694B

    In 2015-16 UK Government spending is forecast to be £755B

    So much for “austerity”..

    With such a big rise forecast for spending, tax revenues will have to rise an awful lot. The current 2014 deficit is forecast at around £95B

    So to breakeven , a reduction of £95B through tax rises and spending cuts is needed.

    BIG numbers. And anyone who suggests bakers’ bonuses will fill the gap is just showing how out of touch with reality they are.

    In effect there can be no increased spending on ANYTHING and some big spending cuts. And to suggest Foreign Aid, Benefits and the NHS (for example only) will be untouched seems a little unrealistic to me

    Strangely enough, no-one is willing to say how they will achieve a budget surplus…

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