At the beginning of each year I test my first year politics students by presenting them with a series of photographs of members of the frontbench teams of each of the three main political parties and asking them to identify them and their roles.
The roots of this ritual humiliation lie in part in my own experiences as an undergraduate student when in one excruciating tutorial, the late Professor Adrian Oldfield asked each of those present in turn to name various members of the then Cabinet. To our shame, and Professor Oldfield’s growing frustration, we were barely able to name any. The result of this exercise can be seen in the above photograph which is the list I went away and compiled after this tutorial, and which twenty five years later still sits at the front of my first year undergraduate politics folder.
There are a number of things to note about this list. Firstly, it is handwritten, access to personal computers was limited back then. More significantly, there was no internet in 1989, and as a result identifying members of the Cabinet was a good deal more complicated and time consuming than it is today. I distinctly remember trawling through recent editions of the broadsheet newspapers in the university library to find references to Government Ministers. Which also perhaps explains why this is a partial list, significant ommissions include Deputy Prime Minister, Geoffrey Howe, and Defence Secretary, Tom King, and also why several first names are missing, because the newspapers tended to refer to Ministers either by their title or as Mr… I also included relatively minor junior Ministers who, while not members of the Cabinet, were presumably in the news that week. Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, the list is dated 16th November 1989, which was my nineteenth birthday. It now seems extraordinary to me that I spent at least part of that day searching the newspapers for references to Cabinet Ministers, the past truly is a foreign country.
So how did this year’s students do? In contrast to my own less technologically advanced experiences, I present students with a series of photographs on Powerpoint slides. In order to reduce the humiliation, I also allow them to work in groups, in this case three groups of five.
The first slide contains photographs of five prominent members of the Cabinet. Reassuringly every group was able to identify David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne, Theresa May and William Hague. All knew that Cameron is Prime Minister, Osborne is Chancellor, and May is Home Secretary. Everyone also knew that Nick Clegg was Deputy Prime Minister, although they were less clear about what this involved. William Hague, who moved from Foreign Secretary to become Leader of the House of Commons in the last reshuffle caused some confusion. One group correctly identified him as Leader of the Commons, while another, also correctly, added that he was First Secretary of State, which is a role he assumed in 2010 and did not give up on moving from the Foreign Office, the third group simply wrote ‘new job’.
The second slide includes six more Cabinet Ministers, holding perhaps less, but not very much less, prominent roles. Jeremy Hunt who has been on the television quite a lot lately, was only identified by one group. Nobody recognised the Liberal Democrat energy secretary, Ed Davey. In contrast all recognised Danny Alexander, although only one group knew he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury, a post he has held since 2010. Someone did recall that Harriet Harman had referred to him as a ‘ginger rodent.’ Nobody recognised the Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers, and only one group recognised the new Cabinet appointees, Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon and Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, although another group did suggest she was ‘Gove jr.’
The third and final slide contained members of the Labour Shadow Cabinet, which by some way enjoyed the lowest levels of recognition. This did not include Ed Miliband, as a result the only Shadow Minister recognised by all three groups was Ed Balls, who all knew him to be Shadow Chancellor. Two of the groups failed to recognise any other members of the Shadow Cabinet, and all three groups failed to recognise Douglas Alexander (Shadow Foreign Secretary) or Rachel Reeves (Shadow Work & Pensions). The one, more well-informed, group did identify Harriet Harman (whom one group thought was Yvette Cooper). However, this group did think that Harman was Shadow Education Secretary rather than either of the two roles she currently holds, Shadow Deputy PM or Shadow Secretary for Culture, Media, and Sports. They also correctly identified Andy Burnham as Shadow Health Secretary, and despite some quite spectacular misspelling, Chuka Umunna, who they suggested was responsible for shadowing Work & Pensions, rather than Business, Innovation and Skills.
Aside, perhaps, from revealing that politics undergraduates are no more well informed than 25 years ago, does any of this matter? The real reason for running this little test is to reveal something about the nature of Executive power in the UK. Although British Prime Ministers, unlike for example US Presidents, are not elected by a popular vote, Prime Ministers nevertheless enjoy considerable personal authority. This may be, in part, because they are the only, or at least one of only a very small number of, politicians that many people can actually recognise. The Prime Minister may be first among equals, but as this test shows one does not need to move very far around the Cabinet table to recede into the shadows. It is striking that some MPs will spend their entire political career trying to get a seat at the Cabinet table, the late Alan Clark being a prime example, but that the reality is that for most this will result in little, if any, increase in personal recognition. The elevated role of the Prime Minister may be the result of media attention which focuses overwhelmingly on the Prime Minister, and very little on other government Ministers. This is particularly the case during election campaigns which are increasingly presented as contests between Party leaders, something which has been encouraged by the introduction of Party leaders’ debates at the 2010 election. These developments have all contributed to what some have identified as a Presidentialisation of British politics.
Another interesting result of this test is that while most Cabinet, and indeed Shadow Cabinet, members bask in relative obscurity a small number do enjoy levels of recognition similar to those of their Party leaders. In short if Prime Ministers are first among equals, it is clear that when it comes to other Ministers some are more equal than others. This helps to illustrate one of the fundamental weaknesses of the British Prime Minister’s position which is that they owe their position not to the public or indeed the media, but to the support of their own Party and in order to stay in power they must keep that support. Moreover, those holding the most prominent positions with the highest levels of public recognition are those most likely to replace them, which means that for most Prime Ministers, potential successors, and indeed political assassins, are in all likelihood sitting around the Cabinet table next to them.
If we look at the positions held by leaders of the two main parties before becoming Party leader, since the second world war, all have been members of their Party’s frontbench team and most have held one of two posts – Chancellor/Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer or Foreign/Shadow Foreign Secretary. Three Labour leaders, Attlee, Kinnock and Blair were suceeded by their Chancellors, and four Conservatives, Eden, Douglas Home, Thatcher and Duncan Smith, while two each have been replaced by their frontbench spokesperson on foreign affairs, Gaitskell (notwithstanding the interregnum of Deputy Leader George Brown), Wilson, Churchill and Macmillan. Interestingly only two have moved directly from education to become Party leader, Kinnock and Cameron, which perhaps offers another perspective on the replacement of Michael Gove in this year’s reshuffle. Another intersting observation, about which I offer no comment, Ed Miliband was the Party’s energy spokesperson before becoming Labour leader, while his brother David, whom he defeated in the leadership contest was, of course, Shadow Foreign Secretary.
Of course all of this suggests that position is at least if not more important a factor than recognition when seeking elevation to the top job, but it is also clear that some Cabinet/Shadow Cabinet posts bring both, and these are the ones most likely to lead on to higher office. It may also be the case that parties are unlikely to select a leader who is not widely recognised both within the Party and beyond. By this logic, at present should either lose the general election the most likely successors to Cameron and Miliband are Osborne or Theresa May, or Ed Balls. The Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, did not feature in this year’s recognition test but I suspect is less familiar than his predecessor William Hague, while Labour contenders such as Douglas Alexander and Andy Burnham would appear to have some way to go.