Do the Conservatives need a Shadow Cabinet?

Matt Gass considers the challenges facing the next election campaign

Home Affairs ISecretary of State for Business, Energy and Scotland, along with Chief Secretary to Treasury, are the cabinet level positions held by Liberal Democrats since the Coalition was formed. We are now just over a year from the planned date of the 2015 election. Against the expectations of many the Coalition looks set to remain in place until that date despite increased public rows between cabinet colleagues and their proxies and parties have been manoeuvring for some time to prepare.

From day one coalition has spawned some unique logistical problems. Even the coalition negotiations themselves were conducted through a hastily prepared set of rules bolted together from historical precedents by the Cabinet Office when a hung-Parliament began looking like a clear possibility. One problem hasn’t been addressed that will have major ramifications for how the election is fought: who will speak for the Conservatives on issues where the Lib Dems control the department?

The importance of businesses to the long-term economic future of the country will be one of the Conservative Party will be one of the major issues the conservatives fight the election on. However the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has been run for the last four years, and will likely still be run next year, by the Liberal Democrat Vince Cable. There are Tory ministers in BIS, but no one person who can claim to speak for the party on these issues.

This state of affairs will make an election impossible. If these positions are not filled with “shadows” the parties will not be able to give a clear indication of who the people in charge of many vital areas of policy will be.

A number of options appear to be available to fix this.

The most obvious is that the most senior minister within a department will become the party’s spokesperson on that area. This would be attractive because it would give the position to the individual with the most relevant experience and the ability to speak with the most authority. Having lacked a spokesman on these issues for so long this would be the best way to remove any uncertainty.

There would be problems though. Firstly placing government colleagues in direct political conflict at any point prior to the election would make governing practically impossible and destroy whatever image of coalition unity still remained. As such any move in this direction would need to wait until the last possible moment which would leave long months before an election with a vacuum in many areas of policy.

Secondly the successor may not be as obvious as might be expected. In BIS for example David Willetts is most senior and well known Tory as Minister for Universities and Science (and the UK Space Agency) but is tied almost exclusively to the Higher Education aspect of that brief. Michael Fallon has been an effective minister for business and innovation but is shared with the Department for Energy, where alongside Greg Barker he would be the natural fit for party spokesman, and was also recently appointed Minister for my hometown of Portsmouth. The final contender is Matthew Hancock, a close ally of George Osborne who may also have his eye on the Chief Secretary role under the Chancellor. Mr Hancock, a former Bank of England economist, would prove a strong foil during an election for the Labour’s young shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna. The prospect of friction between three such important members of the party at a critical time pre-election would be concerning to election strategists and potentially confusing to voters.

Another option would be to create spokesmen and women within the parties of government, similar to the Lib Dem system before  2010. They would be able to speak on the parties behalf without having any formal role in the government. This would still create friction with the Lib Dems, but no more than would likely be the case anyway. Indeed the extra certainty from having clear shadows could even make the process smoother.

The flexibility of not being bound to a team post-election could prove useful in the future. It would also provide an opportunity to give opportunities to talented younger MPs who would probably be junior ministers if not for the squeeze on government jobs created by the coalition.

Each option has its strengths and weaknesses, and other alternatives will be floated. One thing should be clear though: the Conservatives cannot go a whole year without setting out their vision for these policy areas and they will need new members of the team to do so.


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