"David Cameron has meanwhile been going back to his constituency and preparing for government. This has involved a fairly sober assessment of how many genuinely Cabinet-grade people he has on his team (he struggled to get into double digits). Ideally, his next reshuffle should be the last. It is vital for his prospects that the Tory frontbench look and sound like a competent government-in-waiting in comparison to the disintegrating Brown Cabinet."
Fraser Nelson wrote those words for The Spectator a few weeks ago. Our emphasis.
So… Who are the people that David Cameron really rates in his top team? Three groups of three stand out.
THE THREE BIGGEST BEASTS
David Cameron’s three leading shadow cabinet ministers also top the league that measures grassroots approval of frontbenchers. That’s not just because they hold the most important positions. Before the inheritance tax announcement George Osborne was sliding down the ratings. At the end of September the Shadow Eric Pickles, Chancellor had dropped below Eric Pickles, Owen Paterson and Dame Pauline Neville-Jones.
George Osborne is certainly the most important member of the shadow cabinet to David Cameron. We discussed the Shadow Chancellor’s position at some length yesterday.
William Hague remains the darling of the grassroots as was proved by the reception he received for his two Party Conference speeches. He also has responsibility for the party’s northern revival through his chairmanship of Campaign North. Can he discharge these tasks adequately given the scale of his outside interests? That question isn’t likely to go away in 2008.
Since becoming Shadow Home Secretary at the end of 2003 David Davis has moved the Conservative Party in a decidedly more civil libertarian direction. He has also won the internal argument on drugs. The more liberal approach signalled by David Cameron during the leadership election has been quietly ditched. But has David Davis used his tenure to develop a hard-hitting Tory approach to crime? Team Cameron are now pleased that the law and order issue is no longer monopolised by Mr Davis. They have high hopes that Nick Herbert will deliver some more electorally potent policies on crime over the next two years.
THE THREE TO WATCH
Nick Herbert is one of three members of the shadow cabinet who are most likely to be the big beasts of the future. Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt are the other two of this trio that only entered the Commons in 2005.
Most significant of the group is Michael Gove. As clever as he is courteous, when Shadow Housing spokesman he demolished Government credibility on HIPS. He is now restoring credibility to Tory education policy after the grammar schools fiasco – although some of the more striking of his policy announcements owe much to the under-acknowledged work of David Willetts. He regularly helps with the Tory leader’s most important speeches and gave 2007’s definitive speech on the intellectual weaknesses of Gordon Brown. His neoconservative outlook has not prevented his rapid rise but will probably stop David Cameron from
giving him a foreign affairs brief in the near future. He recently ditched his glasses and appears to be adopting a snappier dressing style. Mr Gove is not without ambition.
Gove is assisted by one of the party’s brightest thinkers, Dominic Cummings. Nick Herbert also has a powerhouse adviser in his Chief of Staff, Blair Gibbs. Herbert ran the Reform think tank before entering Parliament and was the principal beneficiary of Michael Howard’s mistreatment of Howard Flight. Having impressed David Cameron with his work on police reform he now has responsibility for one of the biggest briefs in the shadow cabinet and is opposing Jack Straw, arguably Gordon Brown’s most able Cabinet Minister. If he succeeds in this brief he is set fair for a big future.
Jeremy Hunt, Shadow Culture Secretary, is the most untested of the ‘three to watch’ and probably over-reacted to the James Purnell’s fake photos row. Nonetheless, his recent policy announcement on the licence fee is one of the most strategically important initiatives by the Conservatives since the 2005 General Election. His rise has been slower than Gove and Herbert – and he leap-frogged Ed Vaizey because of the latter’s complicity in the museums-charging row – but one of the most senior advisers at CCHQ describes Hunt as "our very best communicator".
THE THREE INDISPENSABLES
David Cameron and Liam Fox have not had an easy relationship. Dr Fox did not think there was enough ‘balance’ to the first eighteen months of Project Cameron and his judgment was right. He has nonetheless worked hard on the defence brief and his thinking on energy security is particularly impressive. High points for Dr Fox included bringing Giuliani to London and leading the charge against Brown’s Iraq troops withdrawal. One of the most popular members on the right of the party he was also one of the first to understand the importance of a broader Conservatism, founding the Conservative Party’s Human Rights Group and coining the ‘broken society’ term.
Oliver Letwin will be writing for ConservativeHome soon about the policy review process. His fingerprints are all over Project Cameron and the West Dorset MP can probably be described as the leading frontbench representative of über-modernisation. The first senior shadow cabinet minister to endorse David Cameron’s leadership bid he was also the first senior advocate of the green agenda, of co-operation with the Liberal Democrats, of a rejection of supply-side tax cuts, of an emphasis on relative poverty and a downplaying of issues like immigration. Martin Bright famously, and fairly, called Letwin the Gandalf of Camp Cameron. Letwin has now struck up an unlikely alliance with Andy Coulson. The party’s director of communications is thought to regard Mr Letwin as indispensable. He regards Mr Letwin’s intellectual skills and hard work as central to earthing the hyperactivity of some of the Cameroons and their eagerness to announce things that haven’t always been thought through.
The final member of our group of nine is our Leader in the Lords, Lord Strathclyde. Very popular with the grassroots Tom Strathclyde has the enormous task of overseeing Tory operations in the one chamber where the party often enjoys a good chance of defeating or amending Government legislation. He is 99% certain to be Leader of the Lords should Cameron become Prime Minister at the next General Election. He is thought to believe that the party will need forty to fifty extra peers if it is to be able to conduct Government business adequately. His considerable diplomatic skills might yet be stretched to breaking point if the party leadership’s support for a more democratic Upper House comes up against the Tory peers’ opposition to any big change.
If you were looking for people of Cabinet grade it wouldn’t be difficult to grow the list but the above nine are, in our opinion, those most valued by the party leader. Tomorrow we’ll identify the MPs that the ConservativeHome Members’ Panel most want to see in the shadow cabinet. Then we’ll look at the women in the shadow cabinet and which are likeliest to break into the inner core.