Where have all the big beasts gone?

by Stephen Tall on February 15, 2007

Adrian Hamilton makes a fair point in today’s Independent:

The New Labour government will soon be 10 years old. But what may well be most remarkable about this administration as it approaches its birthday is not so much its longevity but how little heavyweight talent it has at the end. Think of almost any cabinet since the Second World War and even the weakest of governments – the later Wilson administrations, John Major’s and Jim Callaghan’s – had some pretty formidable figures round the table. You might think some overrated, others positively loathsome, but it is hard to deny that Tony Crossland, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Dick Crossman from the Wilson government or Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine and Chris Patten from Thatcher and Major’s, were pretty formidable politicians, “big beasts” in the jungle that is Westminster.

Compare that with the present Cabinet and, if you exclude the PM and the Chancellor, it is hard to see a small duck never mind a large beast.

Of course, it’s a little too easy to look back in wonder and pick out exempla. Harold Wilson’s cabinets also included such yesterday’s men as Fred Peart, Michael Stewart and Richard Marsh (to name but three). Margaret Thatcher made space for dull worthies like David Waddington, John Moore and David Hunt.

But the point remains: the top three posts – Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Home Office – were occupied by, inter alia, Jenkins, Callaghan and Healey (under Wilson) and Lawson, Howe and Hurd (under Thatcher). All except Lawson ran for the leadership of their respective parties, and, if successful, would have become Prime Minister.

Small wonder, then, that when Frank Field cast around for an alternative to Gordon Brown as Labour leader (in yesterday’s well-reported Grauniad article) he ducked naming an alternative until his last, four-word sentence: “Step forward, David Miliband.” If Mr Miliband’s your answer, a well-worn put-down is required: ‘What the hell was your question?’

But then if you look at this page – the current Cabinet – you see Labour’s problem: who else is there? (Which is all the more remarkable considering this Government was originally elected with over 400 MPs.)

Why this dearth of talent? Is politics failing now to attract the right calibre of candidates? Does the growing scrutiny of MPs’ lives filter out bright sparks with some vim and vigour about them? Has the increasing centralisation of Westminster politics overloaded cabinet ministers with tedious operational minutiae? Are our expectations unrealistically high?