What’s the biggest working change for Ministers in this majority Conservative Government? Is no longer having to bother about what the Liberal Democrats think? Is it having to worry about what the Commons will do, since the Coalition had an effective majority of about 80, and this administration has a formal one of only 12? Is it the new belligerence of the Lords?
According to a Cabinet Minister, it is none of the above. Speaking to ConservativeHome this week, he said that the most significant difference was that “we no longer have to take the Opposition’s reaction to our proposals into account”. During the last Parliament, he explained, every announcement was assessed for likely Labour reaction. “Whatever you think of Miliband and Balls,” he said, “they were professionals, and knew what they were doing”. Labour were organised to make trouble for the Government, not only by reacting swiftly to announcements but through the feeding of stories to lobby journalists and others, the organised use of written Parliamentary questions and FOI requests, the sending of probing letters to Jeremy Heywood and other senior civil servants, the recruitment of third-party supporters, and so on.
Now that Minister no longer seeks to second-guess his opposite number. Labour’s Shadow Cabinet and front bench team is turned in on itself – supporting or opposing Jeremy Corbyn. Will there be a coup? What should I do? Can he last really until 2020 and – in the aftermath of the Labour leader’s deliberate undermining of his own front team over Syria – how can he treat us like this? These are the questions that now consume Labour’s top team, rather than the one that pertains in more normal times, namely: what can I do today to put the wind up the Government?
This absence of energetic and credible opposition is evident in almost everything – such as, for example, the floods that are now overwhelming parts of Cumbria. Kerry McCarthy did a workmanlike job in the Commons yesterday of questioning Elizabeth Truss, but the Environment Secretary simply shook her off. Her Shadow will doubtless be seeking to do what an opposition spokesman usually does in these circumstances – that’s to say, complain of broken promises, dig out information, pledge new spending, “get in on the story”. But McCarthy is new to her post and the brief. And hers is, to put it politely, a counter-intuitive appointment: she’s a vegan who believes that she’s a vegan who believes that meat eaters should be treated like smokers. This is unlikely to go down well with the farmers of Cumbria – or anywhere else.
The Minister said that this absence of effective is as bad for the country as it is inconvenient for the country. He added that, since nature abhors a vacuum, a lasting gap where opposition should be will be filled by Conservative backbenchers. This isn’t happening yet, but the revolt over tax credits was a sign of what may come. Look out for more after the first major Government reshuffle, when MPs who want a leg up don’t get one, and Ministers who don’t want to be shipped out are shipped out.
P.S: If you view this Minister’s candid assessment of Labour’s weaknesses against Chris Grayling’s warning on this site this morning against institutional complacency, you have full spectrum vision, pretty much, of the range of emotions with which senior Conservatives currently view the opposition – amazement, contempt, apprehension, concern, as heads are shaken and fingers crossed…