A top-flight politician is a combination of high principle, brains, low cunning, energy, natural authority, adaptability, good judgement, experience (usually) and, perhaps above all, luck. Most Governments have four or five in the Cabinet at any one time. Margaret Thatcher had Willie Whitelaw, Geoffrey Howe, Michael Heseltine, Keith Joseph and Peter Walker in her first Cabinet. Tony Blair had Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Jack Straw, David Blunkett and John Prescott in his.
Unlike either of these Prime Ministers, John Major never won a general election landslide. But his first Cabinet contained a galaxy of Tory stars: Heseltine (again), Ken Clarke, Chris Patten, Michael Howard, Peter Lilley. David Cameron’s had Theresa May, William Hague, George Osborne, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove. Look back to the 1960s and 1970s, and your eyes will be dazzled. Iain Macleod, Enoch Powell, Reginald Maudling, Quintin Hogg, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Barbara Castle, Tony Crosland.
It is a fact of life that policemen look younger as you get older, small people look like giants to young children…and the politicians of each generation look less impressive than those of the last one. Up to a point, it’s a trick of the light. Nostalgia makes mugs of most of us. Furthermore, not all those titans of former times covered all the bases. Keith Joseph, for example, was an inspirational thinker, but not the most effective of departmental ministers. Nor did most of them toil away in their constituencies with the application of today’s MPs.
None the less, ask yourself who could replace Philip Hammond as Chancellor of the Exchequer (not, repeat not, that we are recommending such a course), and the answer that comes back at you is instructive. The country faces the greatest challenge in its post-war history. The Government does not have a workable majority, as this site keeps telling its readers, and as the NICs bungle has made evident to all. But the list of Cabinet members who could step into the Chancellor’s shoes in present circumstances is not a long one.
I count David Davis, Damian Green, Liam Fox, Boris Johnson (fingers crossed) and Michael Fallon, the most likely replacement for Hammond were he suddenly to decide that he’s had enough. One could then add Jeremy Hunt, Amber Rudd and, as a slightly longer shot, Greg Clark. Anything else looks like a stretch. This list is perhaps no shorter than that those most Cabinets would provide, but it somehow feels so in these challenging times. It looks as though our readers agree. They marked a minority of ministers above 50 per cent in our last Cabinet League Table.
May would be mad to hold a night of the long kitten heels, and sack a big slice of her Cabinet, Harold Macmillan-style. Reshuffles on that reckless scale do Prime Ministers no good, and her slender majority does not allow for making new enemies. But the grisly truth is that in terms of the effectiveness of government and its presentation to voters, the Prime Minister could lose roughly a third of the Cabinet without losing any sleep. Which Ministers lower down the pecking order might she put in it instead?
Here is a possible shortlist of five: Rory Stewart, Jo Johnson, Greg Hands, Brandon Lewis, Gavin Barwell. None bar Hands have sat around the Cabinet table before, and not all could be sent to any old department you like (another mark of a supple politician is that you can put him more or less anywhere). But a glance at it confirms that there is no shortage of people one could send in through the revolving door as others come out. Then there are the backbenches. For example, Lilley, named earlier in this piece, is still very much around.
Most senior politicians have a circle of chums, but a small minority do not. Hammond is one of them. The Chancellor has risen through brainpower. He spent most of his time in Cabinet, before going to the Treasury, in relatively sheltered departments, in Parliamentary terms at least. The Defence Secretary seldom has much legislation to take through the House, and the Foreign Secretary almost never. And the cock-ups you make seldom have an immediate impact – unless the Falkland Islands, say, are lost on your watch.
The Treasury could not be more different. The sum of the NICs bungle is that voters may soon forget about it, but lots of MPs won’t. If there’s one thing the J.Alfred Prufrocks of this world hate, it’s being made to look like mugs by Ministers – being told that the Government will not resile from a policy, sticking their necks out for it, sending the PRU staple e-mail to furious constituents…and then being left in no-man’s land when Ministers do a U-turn. The cock-up was not entirely Hammond’s fault, but he will feel his friendlessness during the weeks to come.
Certainly, the media will view his Autumn Budget as a contact sport. Journalists will scour and re-scour it for weaknesses, and pour out all their firepower on any that they discover. Little excites political journalists more, in the manner of those piranhas below the bridge in You Only Live Twice, than the splash of a Minister hitting the water. Hammond holds a vital place in the small team of Ministers at the top who have to manage Brexit, and the Prime Minister must stick with him. But he will be mindful that most politicians only live once.
The tale of how a tax rise ruled out by a manifesto slipped into a Budget without being spotted has a wider application. Against the backdrop of a stunning poll lead and an epically useless opposition, May has looked impregnable. ConservativeHome has warned repeatedly – and again in the wake of the Budget before the NICs row blew up – that this is not so. The Prime Minister is like her Chancellor in at least one respect: she did not get where she is today by building a wide network of Parliamentary support.
The Article 50 being now done and dusted, she is about to hit the rough water: the negotiations themselves. Sitting on the backbenches are some very senior politicians who have no reason to bear her good will: Osborne, Gove. All Governments are vulnerable to the unexpected, as the election spending saga is now showing. And at the top, this Cabinet is not a strong one. A final point. My possible Cabinet entrants have one thing in common: all are men. I am doubtless a bigoted, sexist dinosaur. The alternative is too alarming to be contemplated.