It was always very unlikely that Theresa May had authorised the placing on the Home Office website of her critical letter to Michael Gove. It is already very clear that allegations of non-violent extremism in Birmingham schools were made as early as 2010. The Home Secretary and Education Secretary were thus in different degrees of danger when they faced the Commons yesterday afternoon – the first to answer a Labour urgent question, the second to make a statement of his own volition. As Mark Wallace wrote on this site yesterday, both Ministers survived their respective ordeals unscarred. And there is a moral for the coming election for what happened yesterday amidst the green benches.
Skewering an imperilled Minister in the Commons is very hard for his opposite number to do. The Minister usually goes to the despatch box knowing more about the issue to hand than his shadow. This knowledge will be the basis of an operation by the Government Whips to shore him up and attack the opposition. He will have the civil machine at his disposal. He will also be able to deploy gambits if in a tight spot. Gove yesterday reached for a classic – the convenient enquiry. “I am also concerned that the DFE may not have acted when it should have done,” he told the House. “I am asking the permanent secretary to investigate how my Department dealt with warnings since the formation of this Government in 2010, and before.” This enquiry gave Gove a shield beneath which to shelter if probed by any awkward question about what he knew, and when (though he ventured from behind it to make clear that he was neither at a crucial meeting in that year nor warned about its content).
The Shadow Minister, by contrast, will not have the civil service to assist. He will instead be dependent on his team of Commons staff and researchers. He only has one shot at the Minister – although the Opposition Whips will certainly prime backbenchers to keep re-firing the key questions. Unless he has information to hand which he hasn’t revealed, he won’t have the initiative in the exchange. So the Minister will have it instead, perhaps announcing an enquiry that will shut questions down for the moment – just as Gove did yesterday. In ten years on the Opposition benches, I saw an apparently endless line of Shadow Secretaries of State go over the top – sometimes literally – to try to kill off wounded Ministers. I can only remember one success: David Davis’s defenestration of Charles Clarke over the deportation of foreign prisoners.
Other Secretaries of State may have been wounded in similar encounters, but in most cases it was further revelations or media pressure or the withdrawal of support by their colleagues that forced eventual resignation. In Government, Theresa May has grown into a figure of the first political rank; in opposition, I saw her fail to lay a fingernail on a trouble-plagued Stephen Byers. I say all this to show that I have a certain residual sympathy for the difficulty that Labour faced yesterday.
But there was more to what happened than a Government outgunning the Opposition from an inherent position of strength. First, it isn’t clear what Labour hoped to achieve by dragging the Home Secretary to the Commons. As I say, she had clearly not authorised the publication on the Home Office website of her letter to Gove. That being so, the Opposition was wasting its breath trying to tease out the precise circumstances in which Fiona Cunningham decided to do so – and, in any event, Cunningham has resigned. Yvette Cooper is a joyless and efficient functionary, and had the sense to keep her questions short. None the less, she was on a hiding to nothing. Tristram Hunt, by contrast, maundered on at length (so much so that he was shut up near the end of his remarks by the Speaker). His position on no-notice inspections was also a muddle. This allowed Gove to swoop on it and counter-attack.
The more on thinks about it, the more one comes to see that what took place yesterday was emblematic of more than the edge that the Government usually has in these circumstances. Put plainly, Labour’s Shadow Cabinet is very weak and the Conservative Cabinet itself rather strong. How many members of the former do most voters recognise, Ed Miliband apart? My guess is only one: Ed Balls. That the only member of Miliband’s team familiar to the public is a man intimately associated with Gordon Brown (who re-emerged yesterday on characteristically grudge-packed form) is not a political plus. Those who follow the news will know Harriet Harman. Many of them will recognise Andy Burnham. Some will be starting to place Hunt and Chuka Umunna and Rachel Reeves. But to most people, Mary Creagh and Michael Dugher and Emma Reynolds won’t even be names. How could it be otherwise? All hold relatively junior posts, and two weren’t in the Commons even five years ago.
Think, by contrast, on May and Gove and George Osborne and William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. The last two are former Conservative leaders, and have been around for years. The first two have been knocking around at the top of Tory politics for the best part of ten years in the first case at least. The electorate may not like the top Conservatives, but at least it knows them – and is thus more likely to regard them as more experienced than their counterparts. That voters sometimes muddle Osborne with Tom Hanks and Hague with Ross Kemp doesn’t wither this advantage. Expect David Cameron and Lynton Crosby to make the most of it.