The tectonic plates are shifting

In the late 1990s the parade of faces marching from the Commons to the Lords for the Queen's Speech made interesting viewing. The cabinet and shadow cabinet were both equally recognisable. A handful of major figures on both sides were well-known to the public - two thirds of each frontbench was not. There was a reason for this. Most of the shadow cabinet had been, a few years earlier, in the cabinet. As Blair's government wore on this largely ceased to be true. The shadow cabinet became more anonymous.

But such is not inevitably the case. If we wind back the clock not to 1998 but to 1996 we find something similar. Then the Labour shadow cabinet was very well-known, not because its members had been in the cabinet but because people assumed that they soon would be.

What about now? David Cameron is instantly recognisable, but the Leader of the Opposition always is. Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, is far more effective than I had expected. He scored points off Gordon Brown when the latter had been established in post for ten years. He is having an easier job with Alistair Darling. William Hague is easier to pick out of a crowd than David Milliband, the man he shadows. There is a confidence about David Davis, born of the fact that he has already seen off three Labour heavyweights and now has the seemingly easier task of shadowing Jackie Smith.

The shadow cabinet is strong. But who, exactly, are they shadowing. Ed Balls and the Milliband brothers may develop into substantial figures, but they aren't there yet. It was never intended that Alistair Darling should develop. He is a place holder. Gordon Brown remains Chancellor in all but name. Jackie Smith is allowed to struggle with every embarrassment alone, and almost physically shoved aside by Brown when there is something positive to announce.

When he became PM, Tony Blair surrounded himself with major figures who had reputations independent of his: Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Robin Cook, David Blunkett, Jack Straw. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher did the same thing. But Brown has pushed aside the Straws and the Johnsons to have his own loyal pygmies in all the top jobs.

It is a remarkable fact - and possibly unique in the history of the television age - but the shadow cabinet is much more recognisable than the people they shadow.

If the Conservatives were to return to power the balance would tilt almost immediately and very firmly in their direction. Labour would probably lose its only recognisable face. And David Cameron could add to the three he has shadowing the great offices of state such figures as Malcolm Rifkind, Kenneth Clark, John Redwood and Iain Duncan-Smith.

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All information © copyright Quentin Langley 2017
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