Beyond being implicated in the Jimmy Savile scandal it’s hard to imagine how last week could have been worse for the Tories. The build up to their conference in Birmingham has been marked by about as catastrophic an example of incompetence as it is possible to imagine at the Department for Transport. The cancellation of the West Coast rail franchise competition is plain embarrassing and has led to the usual response of this government: blame someone else. Three civil servants have been suspended while Justine Greening, who was Secretary of State at the time of the fiasco, remains in the Cabinet. You had to feel for her successor, Patrick McLoughlin, who was left to apologise on the Today programme for failings in the department he inherited.
Mark Hoban, who succeeded Chris Grayling as employment minister, took a less conciliatory approach when the National Council for Voluntary Organisations revealed that the much-vaunted Work Programme was driving charities to the wall. But he at least followed the consistent Coalition “blame-someone-else” line by holding charities responsible. I don’t know whether McLoughlin and Hoban will turn out to be any good. It’s early days to pass judgement and they were both put
in the tricky position of defending the record of projects for which they had no responsibility.
But it does strike me that this is a government with very little strength in depth. Tony Blair reshuffled too often and in some positions (prisons minister, for example) there was no consistency whatsoever. However, he at least had the luxury of being able to bring on new talent, much of which now sits on the shadow front bench. Beyond the top jobs, it is difficult to identify any real stars in this administration at all. In his search to break the reshuffle mania of the New Labour years, Cameron has remained loyal to ministers for too long, he has created resentment in the ranks. Too many good younger backbenchers have turned dissident in the process.
As delegates gather in Birmingham it will be interesting to see how many of the younger generation have chosen to stay away.