Most of the reshuffle-related excitement in Westminster is focused on a pending Tory one. But does Ed Miliband’s top team need a bit of freshening up too? I blogged last week that Labour backbenchers, including a number with serious experience of government, were unhappy with the way many of the Labour top dogs are failing to go out to bat for their leader. Miliband has certainly trodden on his stumps in the past few days with some broadcast gaffes, but he does have a problem with the batting order below him.
Yvette Cooper has worked hard to turn around the Labour position on immigration from the Gillian Duffy days to boasting that the party wants to be ‘tougher than the Tories’ (although that ‘tougher than the Tories’ line seems to be applied to any policy area that Labour wants to neutralise, including immigration and welfare, rather than make radical or distinctive policy proposals on). But she has struggled to land any blows on the Conservatives. Theresa May has been a very successful Home Secretary, but like all who hold her job, she’s had a few tricky issues to deal with on her watch. Cooper has rarely managed to turn these tricky issues into running stories that can seriously damage May, and her response to the stop-and-search announcement recently managed to irritate some on her own side who have been agitating for reform and who were pleased with May’s progress.
Meanwhile Ed Balls does have a habit of either disappearing or making slightly bitchy comments when his leader is under the cosh, and other colleagues such as Andy Burnham spend as much time fighting accusations about their record as ministers as they do fighting the Tories (although Burnham has enjoyed a fair bit of success in winding his opponents up with emotive language about ‘our NHS’).
There is genuine enthusiasm in the Miliband camp, though, for those from the 2010 intake who do not have a previous record in government to defend and who are, according to senior sources, going great guns in causing trouble for the ministers they shadow. And while some of them supported David Miliband for leader, they give every impression of having been won over to Ed’s cause and are as happy to work as outriders for him as they are for their own policies. There’s particular praise for Tristram Hunt, Rachel Reeves, Gloria de Piero and Chuka Umunna, with insiders believing that all these shadow ministers have been able to make an impressive amount of headway.
But perhaps the Miliband camp needs a few tips from inside the Tory party. Ministers were genuinely surprised that the Labour shadow Education team didn’t manage to make more of a mountain out of the free schools row last week. One Conservative suggested to me that it would have been far wiser for Hunt to put up his junior colleague Kevin Brennan, a true terrier, to ask the urgent question in order to either summon David Laws to the Commons as Brennan’s true opposite number, or to make more of Laws’ absence. They thought Hunt missed a straight ball on this occasion.
Either way, it’s often difficult to galvanise people without at least the threat of a reshuffle on the cards. Before each reshuffle that Miliband has done in the past, there has been a flurry of activity from ministers identified as underperforming or in danger in some other way as they desperately try to save their jobs. Perhaps the Labour leader needs to drop a few hints to force some of his team to slog a bit harder.