The talk before the reshuffle was all about the march of women into the cabinet, but the other story from yesterday's developments is the positioning of Eurosceptic voices in the Cabinet. Rather than focusing on the demographic composition of the Cabinet, it’s worth considering the beliefs of those in key positions. In the run up to the election next year, and maybe a 2017 In/Out referendum, those who believe that fundamental reform of the EU is necessary and aren’t afraid to consider the alternative if it fails, will occupy key seats at the top table. No wonder Michael Fallon said ‘it’s certainly a Eurosceptic cabinet’ on the Today programme this morning.
The biggest part of this story is Philip Hammond’s move to the Foreign Office, which is likely to send shockwaves through Whitehall. The culture of the FCO has always been explicitly europhile, at odds with public sentiment. This has been reflected in processes such as the balance of competencies – an audit of the EU’s influence across government departments. The views of Eurosceptics have tended to be marginalized, while the prevailing FCO attitude of maintaining the EU status quo has been reinforced. But now the FCO is led by a Secretary of State who is on the record as saying he would vote to leave the EU unless substantial powers are returned. In his new role Hammond may be able to ensure the FCO reflects the priorities of the British electorate, priorities made clear in the recent European elections.
Michael Gove’s switch to Chief Whip is also a boost for Eurosceptics. The former Education Secretary has made no secret that he is not afraid of leaving the EU and would vote to do so if our relationship is not reformed. He is right to argue for the need for a better deal for the UK from the EU, and in his new role of ‘Minister for Television’ he is perfectly placed to make this case on the airwaves. His views are also likely to factor into his responsibility for keeping Conservative backbenchers in line, many of whom are keen to see the Government go further and faster in changing our relationship with the EU.
Meanwhile the departure of Ken Clarke improves the chances of reforming our relationship with Brussels. Ken’s views on the EU are well known, and he has used his exit as a chance to fire off a few last parting shots. Clarke believes that the current terms of our relationship are good enough for the UK and was incapable of seeing the benefits of seeking something better, let alone giving people a say in a referendum. He was a roadblock to change whose exit will empower the campaign for EU reform, not weaken it.
Then there is the removal of Dominic Grieve QC as Attorney General, something that many in Westminster see as paving the way for a British Bill of Rights. As the Spectator has noted previously, Grieve has been a constant roadblock to Britain reducing the influence of the European Court of Human Rights. Meanwhile ministers like Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling, who have been frustrated by the ECHR and who are on record as being strong Eurosceptics, remain in their important posts.
The loss of ministerial office by anyone should not be celebrated – many of those who have lost their jobs have been superb ministers of the crown - but the view articulated by Business for Britain that reform is necessary for Britain to remain in the EU is now represented more prominently and more influentially in Government. With Lord Hill as Britain’s new EU commissioner, charged with pushing ahead with the reform agenda, this reshuffle has been good for those who want a change in our relationship with the EU. It appears the lessons of May’s European elections have been taken to heart by the Prime Minister. Now it’s time for Ed Milliband and Nick Clegg to respond.
Matthew Elliott is Chief Executive of Business for Britain