GRAYLING collarless

Chris Grayling is Leader of the House of Commons, and MP for Epsom and Ewell.

Relegation is tough at the best of times. If you don’t bounce back straight away, it can be much worse.

In that first season in a lower division many of your best players stay with you, in the hope you will make a quick return to the top flight. You have all the experience there of what it takes to play in the top division.

But at the end of that season, if you haven’t made it back, things become very different. Your best players head off elsewhere. The crowds get smaller. The team in charge of the club start to struggle, not knowing quite what to do next. Often things get worse rather than better.

For Labour the 2015 General Election was the end of that first season after relegation. They had hoped and worked for a quick return to the top flight, to get back into Government. It didn’t happen. And now they have all the problems of a football club that didn’t make it back. Looking across at their benches they have lost most of the experienced and senior figures who were with them in Government, with all their best players gone elsewhere. In the midst of all the discussion this summer about their leadership contest this important weakness has been largely overlooked.

When David Cameron became leader in 2005, we had a wealth of experience still on our benches in the Commons to offer a new generation wise advice and guidance. Three former leaders sat behind him, or in the case of William Hague, alongside him. Michael Howard was there as former leader and former Home Secretary. Iain Duncan Smith had reinvented himself as a champion of social justice.

Alongside them in the Commons were some of our most experienced former ministers. Ken Clarke held virtually every senior post. Malcolm Rifkind was there as a former Defence and Foreign Secretary. John Redwood was a former Cabinet Minister and real economic expert.

But when you look at the Labour benches today, it’s striking just how few of their big figures are still around. Yes, they still have Alan Johnson, and Margaret Beckett. But they are the exceptions. Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown have gone. So has Jack Straw. So has David Blunkett. So have Peter Hain, Charles Clarke, John Reid and John Prescott. So have David Miliband (for now at least), John Hutton, Patricia Hewitt, Douglas Alexander and John Denham.

In fact only three of Tony Blair’s 2005 Cabinet Ministers remain in the Commons, to provide wise and experienced heads to their new generation.

In their place are a group of people who were very much in the reserve team a decade ago. Of course that always happens in politics – a new generation comes through in every party. But there can be few examples of that happening in a party that has lost almost all of its senior level experience from its backbenches. Small wonder that they seem all over the place at the moment. There are, quite literally, almost no wise heads left on their benches.

Of course this is a party that has cut itself off from the most successful moments in its past. John Major won an election for us, but was also in charge at one of our worst moments. But he remains a popular elder statesman in our party, and his experience is still valuable for all of us.

By contrast Tony Blair, the man who beat him, and went on to win three elections, is now persona non grata in Labour.

So what happens to a club that won’t even talk to its most successful ever manager, and loses of all of its most experienced players? And then perhaps appoints as manager the noisy supporter who heckles from behind the goal every week?

In the case of Labour, we are about to find out.

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