25/06/2013 06:12 BST | Updated 24/08/2013 06:12 BST

What Bobby Bland Could Teach David Cameron


There's not an obvious connection to be made between the death of one of the finest and most charismatic soul singers there ever was, Bobby Bland, and the imminent Cabinet reshuffle that David Cameron is rumoured to be planning. But a weekend conversation with a friend and ex-colleague has, this morning, proved an unlikely source of inspiration.

My friend works in a notoriously demanding, not universally admired but outstandingly creative environment in which '90% just doesn't cut it. The competition between departments and individuals means that everyone has to be on the top of the game all the time and if something doesn't quite attain the right level then we'll find something that does. It's tough but it works.' (I hope he won't mind the paraphrasing.)

It's a deliberately ruthless system that inspires and also instils fear - perhaps the latter feeds the former. But it makes for a far more rewarding working life than one in which you know even something just 50% decent will pass the lamentable quality controls that many perform under today.

And so to Bobby 'Blue' Bland, the sweetest, sexiest, most powerfully moving soul/blues/R&B voice there ever was, who has sadly just died. He never attained the riches or perhaps fame of his contemporaries but his pursuit of excellence was driven by the illustrious company he kept in the late 1950s and early '60s. Sam Cooke, Percy Mayfield, Chuck Berry, Jackie Wilson, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, Ray Charles - the competition was immense.

If you didn't perform at your peak with every album, with every gig, with every note, there would always be someone better standing behind or beside you.

That's one of the reasons why that era was so rich in music. Every artist pushed themselves to the limit - including the songwriters - because they knew that they had to compete every day to succeed.

Which brings us to David 'Bland' Cameron and his attempt to re-energise a pretty weak team, and get them singing in tune in time for the next General Election.

During her first term as Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher shuffled her pack twice in the same year, 1981, promoting backbench talents such as Nigel Lawson and Norman Tebbit, and giving more high-profile posts to success stories like Keith Joseph, Michael Heseltine and Cecil Parkinson. Tom King, Nicholas Ridley, Ken Clarke, Douglas Hurd and Kenneth Baker were all waiting in the wings. Every one a star or a star in the making.

She ran a regime - and it was a regime - in which underperforming and lacklustre Ministers could be swiftly replaced because the Tory talent pool was so deep. The party's leader knew that fierce competition between her men, especially those who feared and distrusted her, was a key tool in which to force through the changes that she felt the nation needed. Succeed or perish. 90% will not do - because there's always someone who'll give more.

Cameron on the other hand has a very shallow pool of talent in which to dive for reinforcements. I follow politics quite intently but I honestly couldn't put job titles to more than 10 in the Cabinet and I definitely have no idea who are the talented junior ministers or backbenchers pushing for promotion - unless, like Liam Fox and David Davis, they're talented backbenchers who've been sacked.

Is it any wonder this Government seems to be one in which very little happens? The ineffectual stasis is a symptom of the lack of competition - there are very few (the Chancellor excepted) who need to truly show their mettle because they know that the person sitting behind them is not likely to push them out of a job. I don't mean you, Maria Miller.

My former colleague can't afford to accept OK, and everyone who works for him willingly accepts that. Because there's always someone or something better somewhere else.

It's the same reason Bobby Bland was such a consummate professional.

And, equally, perhaps it's the real reason our Prime Minister finds it so easy to chillax.