Thursday, 17 July 2014

The Great British Cabinet Reshuffle

David Cameron has reshuffled his government for the last year of the parliamentary term, giving us the ministerial faces that will fight the next election. Reshuffles in themselves are generally not a major event for the European political sphere - Ireland had a government reshuffle last week, which might be of more interest to those still pondering Juncker's question of how to get elected after running an austerity government - but the UK government reshuffle has attracted some comment over the perceived Euroskeptic shift.

The last of the old Tory Europhiles, Ken Clarke, and some of the more pragmatic ministers such as Dominic Grieve and even William Hague (he of the 10 Day to Save the Pound fame) are gone. In their place is the new class of 2010, who are generally younger and more ideological. Richard Hammond, the Euroskeptic Defence Minister who publicly indicated that he would vote Out in an EU referendum unless there is enough to the reform package, is now the Foreign Secretary. The reshuffle has sparked fear in some quarters that it marks a turn for the worst that could signal the start of moves to take the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights.

But we shouldn't get over-excited. The main focus of the reshuffle is domestic, like all other reshuffles. Promoting the younger generation of Tories is more about making the ministerial benches more diverse and slightly more gender-balanced while harnessing their zeal for the campaign. In Michael Gove's case (the highly divisive Education Minister), there has been a surprising demotion to Chief Whip (to reports of teachers celebrating in classrooms). The new cabinet is more Euroskeptic, but the focus is on the next election rather than on a big bust-up with Europe.

The next Tory manifesto will be the real test for how far the Conservatives will go. If a pledge to withdraw from the ECHR makes it into it, then we can be sure that Cameron has thrown in the towel on pretending to have a moderate European course. Membership of the ECHR is fundamental to membership of the Council of Europe and the EU, and a pledge to withdraw would indicate that Cameron himself could campaign for an Out vote. Nominating Lord Hill to be the next UK Commissioner may be a pragmatic sign (he's reported to be relatively pro-EU), but the Liberal Democrats would have had a say in moderating the government choice, so it's not exactly a clear signal. Hill is also an unknown figure with little obvious connection to a Commission portfolio, making it harder for the UK to get a good post (or harder for Juncker to reconcile with Cameron!), which could add to the narrative of Britain being sidelined in the EU.

In any case, the big fights will come after the next election, when a new cabinet would have to be formed. This reshuffle may be a Euroskeptic turn for the Conservatives, but it really doesn't tell us much new. Cameron's policy of appeasing the Euroskeptics has been heading this way for some time, and domestic political calculations are the biggest consideration here (Cameron is hardly famed for his long-termist thinking on Europe). It will be the next election manifesto that will be the true benchmark for how far Cameron is willing to go.

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