Since November Tony Blair has had a free place at his Cabinet table. Every few weeks speculation has mounted that the long awaited reshuffle was about to take place. Each time nothing happened. We all thought it was due to problems with Gordon Brown. I suspect the real reason is that he just doesn't have the talent among his Ministers of State to promote to the top table. This is the full list of Ministers of State, the ones just below Cabinet rank.
Douglas Alexander (definite), Rosie Winterton (were it not for...), Yvette Cooper (too much of a Brown ally), Phil Woolas (erratic), Dawn Primarolo (thick), John Healey (boring but nice), Harriet Harman (thick and past failure), Kim Howells (rent a gob), Ian Pearson (no idea), Hazel Blears (unpopular with colleagues), Tony McNulty (hurt by current scandal), Elliot Morley (a permanent number two), Margaret Hodge (you have to be joking), Stephen Timms (boring and ugly), Stephen Ladyman (no idea), Jane Kennedy (no idea), David Hanson (boring), Adam Ingram (too old), Alun Michael (past failure), Malcolm Wicks (too old), Jacqui Smith (not up to it), Bill Rammell (no idea), Beverley Hughes (would have to be desperate), Richard Caborn (not up to it)
The only sure-fire promotion from that list is Douglas Alexander. My favourite little chipmunk Hazel Blears would certainly be a Blair loyalist, but apart from those two, there are very few in that list whose names stare out at you and shout "automatic promotion". The alternatives are to promote some of the Parlimantary Under Secretaries or even, wait for it, bring back some of the old hands. A sure sign that he was taking criticism on board would be to offer a Cabinet post to John Denham. The dearth of talent on the Labour benches is amply illustrated by the fact that the chief defender of Charles Clarke on our TV screens is the thinking man's court jester, Steve Pound. That, if nothing else, should demonstrate the trouble Clarke is really in. This illustrates yet another parallel between Blair's current predicament and the final years of Margaret Thatcher. She allowed the whips to handle all the junior promotions with the result that by 1989-90 she found all the Minister of State posts inhabited by non-Thatcherites. A similar fate has befallen Tony Blair in that although he has a reasonable sprinkling of allies among his juniors, it would be stretching it to say any of them had the talent to be in the Cabinet.