When there’s something up, and it don’t look good, who you gonna call? Michael Fallon, apparently.
This week, Fallon further built on his reputation as David Cameron’s safe pair of hands by unexpectedly becoming Minister for Portsmouth. The clear winner of the Westminster’s Longest Business Card prize, he is now Minister for Business and Enterprise, Minister for Energy and Minister for Portsmouth.
It’s a tactical decision by the Prime Minister. With marginal seats up for grabs in the city, and 800 years of ship-building there coming to an end, he wants someone and something to point to when voters ask what the Coalition has done for them.
That’s fine, as far as it goes.
But tactical decisions without a strategic underpinning do tend to come a bit unstuck. Fallon saw the fruits of that on today’s Sunday Politics (not that he minds – he’s a good media performer, and has always been fairly relaxed about dealing with messes caused by others).
Understandably, the media want to know whether there are now going to be ministers for other cities – each city has its problems, and if special ministerial attention is good for one, why should it not be good for the rest? Alternatively, if this isn’t necessary for other cities is it just a gimmick in Portsmouth?
There seems to be no real answer as to why the collected arms of the state suffice to help other cities, but one gets its very own branch (not that Portsmouth will say no to extra help, understandably).
The idea of having ministers everywhere isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound. It’s largely forgotten now, but in opposition there was a Conservative Shadow Minister for each major city.
It didn’t work out that well everywhere – Alan Duncan kept referring to his allotted city, Newcastle, as the City of Tyneside, inducing cringes from every northern Tory – but it did give a chance for some coverage for Conservative campaigns, particularly in places where we didn’t have any sitting MPs.
The difference is this: then we were in Opposition, but now we are in Government. It’s the job of Oppositions to come up with new ways to get headlines – gimmicky or otherwise. Governments have rather more important things to think about (or at least they ought to).
Not only do purely tactical decisions tend not to have the desired effect, they also have a nasty way of distracting from the real strategy. Every party has made that mistake at one time or another: John Major’s Cones Hotline and the entire Millennium Dome project spring to mind.
Michael Fallon has more than enough difficult, important jobs to do (like reining in Vince Cable and solving the nation’s energy gap) without having to bat away the inevitable questions raised by this latest appointment. In some ways this is the classic curse of a busy person – they always get asked to do more. It’s too late to do anything about it now, but perhaps Downing Street might pause and wonder if it’s really fair next time their knees start to jerk.