Lucky, lucky Gordon?

by Stephen Tall on May 23, 2007

Our current Prime Minister has long revelled in the soubriquet, ‘Lucky Tony’. The BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, today suggests that this mantle has now been passed to his successor, Gordon Brown.

His rationale is simple: this week’s latest shambolic performance by the Labour Government could have happened in seven weeks’ time, getting the new Premier’s tenure off to the shakiest of all possible starts.

Well, perhaps. I think Mr Robinson rather underestimates the incapacity of this Cabinet, and their potential for conjuring future folie des grandeurs.

For while it’s a tad tricky to feel sympathetic towards health secretary, Patricia Hewitt – who would happily climb a step-ladder on the peak of Everest all the better to talk down to us – the rather hapless Ruth Kelly is perhaps a little more deserving of pity. Handed the poisoned chalice of making Home Improvement Plans work, she is being forced to sup long and hard no matter the taste is bitter.

Meanwhile, the Government minister actually responsible for the HIPs fiasco, Yvette Cooper, is tipped for a big promotion in Mr Brown’s first cabinet, together with her husband, Ed Balls, a man who manages to make Ms Hewitt seem human.

Lucky Gordon? Really?

He is fortunate in one regard, however – Prime Minister Brown will have an unparalleled opportunity to re-mould his ministerial team as he wishes. Labour party leaders are usually hemmed in by two constraints when assembling their cabinet.

First, the need to reward political rivals in order to show their magnanimity and to unite the party. But Mr Brown has no rivals – enemies, you betcha, but not rivals.

And, secondly, Labour leaders have to construct their first cabinet from those elected by the Parliamentary Party to the shadow cabinet. Look at Team Tony c.1997 – how many of those would have been there from Mr Blair’s personal choice? However, this party rule, rather quaintly, applies only to the first cabinet. After that, the leader can do as she or he wishes.

So Mr Brown has a free hand, made even freer by the voluntary redundancies of those other two clunking fists, the Two Johns, Prescott and Reid.

Of course, this is itself a double-edged sword – his allies will expect their reward, but he cannot possibly avoid disappointing some of the 308 Labour MPs who coronated him.

And yet, as has become painfully obvious these last few months, there are precious few Labour MPs of real standing, who are also cabinet material. That Mr Brown is the sole leadership candidate after 10 years as Chancellor is a very real tribute to his talent and resilience. It is also a damning indictment of the paucity of quality within this Government. The lack of a viable alternative has assisted him in making it to the top of his party; conversely, it might not help him to stay there.

He’s going to need all the luck he can get.