Filling a shadow cabinet could be a tricky task for the Conservatives if the party suffers defeat at the next election and a string of Tory heavweights lose their seats.
The government has under two years to try and narrow the poll gap standing between their party and the opposition and despite trailing Labour badly, Tory party strategists believe there is a “narrow path to victory.”
Indeed, Conservative MPs spent Thursday holed up at a luxury hotel in Windsor receiving advice on how to keep their seats.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is hoping that by steadying the economy, settling Brexit in Northern Ireland with his Windsor Framework and solving the issue of small boats, voters may return in enough numbers in a year or so’s time to give him another chance.
But it is an uphill task. An exclusive i poll found last month that Labour are on course for a 1997-style landslide, maintaining a 17 point lead over the Conservatives. As it stands, voters believe Labour would do a better job than the current Government on all policy areas apart from the handling of the Ukraine war..
If the Conservatives find themselves in opposition for the first time in a decade-and-a-half, and if the polls remain as they are – what would their frontbench look like? Still, finding one would only solve one side of the equation.
As Jeremy Corbyn found out a few years ago, filling a shadow cabinet no-one really wants to be in is no easy feat.
Using data from Electoral Calculus’ latest prediction, it is possible to see what the party may look like if the polls fail to shift significantly between now and a general election. The model should be taken with a pinch of salt, as voting intentions do tend to shift when an election gets closer, but taking it at face value still provides an interesting exercise.
Assuming that Rishi Sunak fails to turn the ship around, most of the party’s big beasts would disappear from the House of Commons. For a start, Mr Sunak himself would be gone. Current cabinet ministers – deep breath – Ben Wallace, Oliver Dowden, Grant Shapps, Penny Mordaunt, Therese Coffey, Mel Stride, Mark Harper, Lucy Frazer, Chris Heaton-Harris and Alister Jack would also be out of the Commons, as would controversial deputy party chairman Lee Anderson.
It seems likely that Dominic Raab would be ousted by the Liberal Democrats the next time around, and Greg Hands has already announced that he is standing down. Boris Johnson would currently lose his Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat but an unexpected return shouldn’t be ruled out.
Former secretaries of state wouldn’t fare much better. Among others – again, inhale – Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Sajid Javid, George Eustice, Tracey Crouch, Theresa Villiers, Brandon Lewis, Robert Jenrick, Andrea Leadsom, Stephen Crabb, Alok Sharma, Julian Smith, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Liam Fox, Kwasi Kwarteng, Karen Bradley, Andrew Mitchell, Robert Buckland, Esther McVey, and Priti Patel would either be ousted by the electorate or have already announced that they will be jumping before they are pushed.
It isn’t like the survivors will have an easy ride either. “The first Shadow Cabinet meeting when the Tories lost in ’97 was actually a bit of a culture shock because most of them, having been in government for 18 years, didn’t even know where the shadow cabinet room was”, says Dr Nigel Fletcher, director of the Centre for Opposition Studies and a former Conservative adviser.
“Gillian Shepherd, who had been the education secretary before the election, wrote in her memoirs that it wasn’t great for their self esteem to go from the corridors of power into this really shabby set of rooms, tucked behind the Speaker’s chair in Parliament.”
But who could be pulling up a chair in said shabby rooms if Labour wins the next election by a landslide?
Leader of the opposition
Who could take up the post of Tory party leader? The consensus in SW1 seems to be that Kemi Badenoch will give it a go again. It would make sense; the 43-year-old caught the eye of many members and fellow MPs when she ran over the summer, but was seen as too inexperienced. She has since become a Cabinet minister, and leading the opposition is less daunting than running the country.
If the party were to decide to go heavy on the culture wars, Ms Badenoch would be a safe bet. Another 2022 contender who could throw his hat in the ring again is Tom Tugendhat, another MP who has since gained experience in government, albeit not quite at the top table yet. The Kent MP was never going to win last time round but still impressed some initially sceptical Conservatives. However, it seems unlikely that the party would want to go for someone still associated – fairly or unfairly – with the more pro-Remain, centrist wing of the party.
Another name that may crop up is James Cleverly, currently foreign secretary. Affable and broadly well-liked, he could pitch himself as a middle-ground between Ms Badenoch and Mr Tugendhat, and his time in the army would surely play in his favour.
The big jobs
Now we have a leader, we ought to fill the shadows for the great offices of state. An obvious choice for a potential Tory shadow chancellor could be current health secretary Steve Barclay. Largely uncontroversial and broadly competent, he did an 18-month stint as chief secretary to the Treasury under Boris Johnson, making the post a natural fit. Another option could be Harriett Baldwin, who is currently serving as chair of the Treasury select committee and used to be economic secretary to the Treasury.
If Ms Badenoch were to succeed in a potential leadership race, it is possible that she would appoint Michael Gove as her shadow home secretary. He has never held a great office of state and shadowing one would be better than nothing, and he was her main supporter over the summer. It would be odd to picture a Tory frontbench without him.
Still, it is possible that he wouldn’t be offered it, or wouldn’t want it altogether. In that case, rising star Victoria Atkins could be a smart choice, having served in the department in the past. Elsewhere, Nusrat Ghani would be an interesting pick.
On the foreign front, Alicia Kearns seems like a clear shoe-in. One of the most successful members of the 2019 intake so far, she is currently the youngest ever chair of the foreign affairs select committee, having beaten several Tory big beasts to get there. If Mr Tugendhat doesn’t make it as leader, he could also find himself at home in the brief.
The rest of the shadow cabinet
This is where things get complicated. How to fill so many posts if many of the more experienced parliamentarians are potentially no longer available? This is, at the very least, what a fairly coherent Conservative shadow cabinet may look like.
Armed forces minister and former army man James Heappey seems like the best possible shout for shadow defence secretary. Currently in the Cabinet Office and formerly a special adviser in No10, Alex Burghart could do a good job as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, though it would be quite a promotion for him.
Health could go to 2019 intaker, TikTok star and former GP Luke Evans, and the new and shiny science, innovation and technology gig could go to Matt Warman, who used to be a minister at DCMS.
Mr Cleverly could, if not leader, make an entertaining shadow leader of the House, and should she miss out on the top job too, Ms Badenoch could make some waves at energy security and net zero.
Businessman Andrew Griffith would fit in well at business and trade, and promising young MP Laura Trott could deal with the DWP. Over at levelling up, it could be a toss-up between Luke Hall, one-time minister for regional growth and local government, and all-round safe pair of hands Kit Malthouse.
Similarly, the education job could either go to rising star and minister for children Clare Coutinho, or to Damian Hinds, who ran the DfE in government for a little while. As a former farmer and current chair of the environmental audit select committee, Philip Dunne could take care of DEFRA, or it could be given to Rebecca Pow, who served in the department for several years.
Meanwhile, former transport committee chair and current transport minister Huw Merriman would be a round peg in a round hole at transport, and solicitor general Michael Tomlinson could move up to shadow justice.
Nigel Huddleston would, as a former Google employee and DCMS minister, make sense at culture. Finally, former chair of Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee Simon Hoare could deal with Belfast, John Lamont could have a go at Scotland, and Craig Williams at Wales.
As for the chief whip, tasked with herding all remaining cats? It’s anyone’s guess.
If you’ve read this and thought “huh?”, “who?”, or, at best, “hmm, that name rings a vague bell”, then you now understand the scale of the Conservatives’ woes if they find themselves in opposition. If they lose as badly as they are currently expected to, their shrinking number of MPs won’t be their sole problem.
Many of their more prominent faces and big beasts are in seats that they may not be able to retain. It isn’t just that they’ll have to get used to opposition for the first time in fifteen years: they’ll have to do so without many of the MPs who spent those fifteen years ruling the roost.
Then again, it probably won’t matter, at least at the start. “One of the first things opposition has to do is actually to get people to pay any attention to them at all”, Dr Fletcher explained.
“If even a fairly middle ranking minister holds a press conference, you’re going to get coverage, whereas members of the Shadow Cabinet, even quite senior ones, actually have to fight to get any coverage at all. That’s usually the first shock that they have, the fact that no one really cares much about what they have to say.”