A scandal can break a politician’s reputation. But in opposition a good scandal can be the making of them.
So it has proved for shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh, whose performance on the ‘horsemeat’ scandal has strengthened her reputation as a reliable, effective, competent shadow minister, one of the emerging talents on the Labour frontbench who look like they would be very comfortable in the cabinet.
Creagh’s personal story runs a bit deeper than most, too. On the surface she looks an archetypal Labour politician, with the Oxford degree, government and academic career and leadership of the Labour group of a London borough preparing her for selection for a safe, northern Labour seat. That is not the whole story, though. Creagh’s father worked in a car factory in Coventry, she went to the local comprehensive, and her mum was a primary school teacher, which adds up to a more down-to-earth upbringing than most in the shadow cabinet.
Creagh is one of the beneficiaries of Labour’s increasing emphasis on gender equality, too. One of the second wave of all-women shortlists in 2005, she was quietly loyal in the whips’ office under Gordon Brown, not a position in which you get to shine brightly.
Creagh might also not have made the shadow cabinet if there had not been a requirement to vote for at least six women (all of which demonstrates, in the view of your insider, that Labour’s policy of positive discrimination for women in the shadow cabinet has been proved right).
As an early supporter of David Miliband, standing at his right hand as he announced his candidacy, she was probably never destined for a rapid rise under his brother, staying firmly in the middle of the pack when he reshuffled his team last year.
So what explains her recent success? Although she’s not a charismatic, fire-and-brimstone politician, she has a quiet tenaciousness that few in the shadow cabinet can match. She has covered the difficult terrain of rural affairs effectively, using a combination of seriousness, measured outrage and forensic questioning to leave ministers floundering and defensive, without ever looking like she is gleefully overjoyed at the political opportunities of an emerging scandal.
Horsemeat is not the first scandal she has ridden hard over the political jumps, either – she scored a notable early victory over government plans to privatise forests, and landed some real blows over ash dieback. She is becoming quite adept at leaving horses’ heads in ministers’ beds.
OK, enough with the horse puns.
Now, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is not exactly a top position for Labour ministers. It has often been a sort of subs bench for the effective but workmanlike minister and it has even been used as the political equivalent of Siberia (think of Nick Brown’s unhappy sojourn at agriculture, or Michael Meacher’s lonely ministerial career).
So where next for Creagh? In opposition, she will probably remain in a solidly middle-ranking job. If we form the next government, though, the measured effectiveness she displays could well be a valuable asset to Ed Miliband, putting her into that category of minister who could be considered for much greater things. Because, for all that Defra is a Labour backwater, two of her last three predecessors ended up as foreign secretary. Who is to say Creagh might not reach similarly high office?
The Borgen tour
During the parliamentary recess, Miliband took his team to Scandinavia on what was swiftly dubbed the ‘Borgen tour’. First up were the Danes, where prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt rolled out the red carpet for the Labour leader. Then it was off to – where else? – Sweden, where new social democrat leader Stefan Löfven and his shadow cabinet took the Labour leader’s team to their country retreat to talk to Swedish MPs about the future of progressive politics.
Miliband is in his element on these trips. Asked his favourite Swedish prime minister, he did not hesitate. He actually has a favourite Swedish prime minister – he went for the classically social democrat Olof Palme, not the more third way Göran Persson, Swedish fact fans. More seriously, the idea of a green-minded, high-tech, middle class-driven, skills-led, anti-austerity and actively European growth policy clearly appeals to Miliband as a common governing project for the centre-left. Expect to hear much, much more of this.
A note of caution, though: the Swedish social democrats have lost their last two elections to reformist conservatives and still have not quite worked out how to respond. Meanwhile, the Danish government is unpopular, in part because it is having to impose cuts to fund job-friendly growth policies. Scandinavian centre-left policy ambition rightly inspires Miliband, but its political challenges should also give him food for thought.
A word to the wise
If you are a member of the Labour leader’s staff, and the leader has just announced a big, bold, new, popular policy, do not be too blatant in taking the credit when talking to journalists. People will notice when your name is suddenly publicly attached to a policy they thought they had been working on.
What is more, it looks a bit like you are taking credit for a stroke of genius that needs to go directly to the boss. Certain members of the leader’s office might do well to volunteer for a vow of silence in future.
Let your master be the voice, eh?
Cartoon: Adrian Teal
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