Wandsworth Conservatives hosted Ken Clarke for their annual fundraising dinner last night. Those that follow me on Twitter will know I was a little, shall I say, cynical of the motives behind these dinners last night as I was separated from my cash in a variety of creative ways – all despite being put onto a table pretty far from the ‘action’.
But then I am a councillor, so I’ve volunteered for it and, of course, benefit directly and indirectly from the money raised. I mustn’t grumble, especially as everyone had such a good time.
And it was a good headline act. Ken Clarke is indisputably one of the big beasts, a king of the British political jungle. One of the country’s best chancellors (certainly better than any of his successors) and definitely one of the best leaders the Conservatives never had. I suspect we might be in a very different political landscape had he become leader in 1997 (so Hague could mature as a national politician) or in 2001 (when we would have missed in-fighting that marred Iain Duncan-Smith’s leadership).
And while his speech was as rousing and robust as you might expect it set me thinking about the nature of those political big beasts.
Looking back to 1997, Major’s last cabinet was full of them. Clarke and Heseltine were obviously the biggest. But there were plenty of ‘names’ there. Rifkind and Howard served as Foreign and Home Secretaries while Portillo occupied Defence. Lesser known at the time was William Hague as Welsh Secretary. Lesser known even now was Sir Patrick Mayhew who laid so much of the groundwork for the Northern Ireland peace process. And the rest of the cabinet was scattered with intelligent and able ministers whose careers were cut short by the electoral disaster that befell them in 1997.
And then look at the Brown Cabinet. You would expect me to say it was weaker, because I clearly have a political bias. But even trying to look at it impartially I find it hard to identify the same level of talent. The only real big beast (though I’d argue he’s far too sleek and stealthy to be called a beast) is Lord Mandelson. But the rest of the Cabinet…?
There are some talented people there. I think Ed Miliband has potential that could, politically, be much better used by the Labour Party than his current portfolio. His brother, I fear, is over-rated and over-promoted as Foreign Secretary. Jack Straw is one of the governmnent’s survivors, but I’m not sure if he qualifies as a big beast – a very safe pair of hands, to be sure – though I may be under-estimating him.
But then you start coming to people like Bob Ainsworth and Harriet Harman and I’m certainly I’m not under-estimating them.
I’m not quite sure why it has turned out this way for Brown. It might be his politics or the electoral situation that explain why people like Alan Milburn have sat on the back-benches rather than at the Cabinet table. But you can hardly claim John Major was in a better position; he was leading a fractured party towards certain defeat – whereas it’s far from sewn up for any party this time.
It might be the change from collegiate and consensual Cabinet government under Major to increasingly presidential-style government under Blair and – while not presidential – the centralised command and control under Brown. It’s difficult to be a big beast in a cage. (For a similar reason, opposition doesn’t produce big beasts, and it will be interesting to re-visit this a few years into a Cameron government.)
So while we could allow sit and applaud Ken last night, I wonder what big beast the Labour would have in 2022, talking about the work needed after twelve years of Tory Government. It would seem the only beast they have is Mandelson? But surely even he can’t come back again?