Although the headlines are about the demotion of Michael Gove and the promotion of women, Europe is the thread that runs through David Cameron’s wide-ranging reshuffle.
We now have a Foreign Secretary in Philip Hammond who has said he would vote to leave the EU unless substantial powers are returned to Britain ahead of the in/out referendum planned for 2017. It is a significant appointment that will send shivers down the spines of some Foreign Office officials.
Although William Hague, the outgoing Foreign Secretary, insisted that Mr Hammond held the same view on Europe as Mr Cameron and himself, his promotion could mark another step towards the EU exit door.
The reshuffle also opens the way for a Conservative manifesto pledge to pull Britain out of the European Convention on Human Rights. Liberal-minded ministers opposed to such a drastic move – Dominic Grieve, who had a pivotal role as Attorney General, Kenneth Clarke and Damian Green – have lost their jobs. Jeremy Wright, the new Attorney General, is a loyalist centre-right figure who will not rock the boat. The Liberal Democrats blocked Tory plans for a “British Bill of Rights” to replace Labour’s Human Rights Act, which incorporated the Convention into UK law.
But Mr Grieve remained an obstacle. In 2012, he warned that if Britain left the Convention, it “would be a pariah state by European standards”. But Mr Cameron sees the move as a populist and common sense one that would, for example, allow Britain to deport more foreign criminals.
The cabinet shake-up has shifted the Government’s centre of gravity to the right. But on Europe, Mr Cameron’s headaches are far from over. Reshuffles always store up problems for a prime minister as well as solving them and this one is no exception.
Liam Fox’s decision to turn down a middle-ranking Foreign Office post leaves a big beast lurking outside the ministerial tent that Mr Cameron would have preferred to have muzzled inside it. The former Defence Secretary was offered a place on the National Security Council in an attempt to change his mind but still said no. Mr Fox could now be well placed to lead the Out campaign in the EU referendum. So could Owen Paterson, ousted as Environment Secretary, who is highly regarded on the Tory right and will now be free to tell us what he really thinks about the EU: that we should get out.
If Mr Cameron thought the reshuffle would pacify his restless Eurosceptics, he was wrong. Yesterday they argued that what mattered most was not getting out of the ECHR but the EU’s separate Charter of Fundamental Rights. “The reshuffle is a diversion,” one prominent Europhobe told me. “The real issue is the renegotiation of our membership terms.”
The other feature of yesterday’s changes was the appointment of a group dubbed the “four musketeers” who will be the new “face” of the Conservatives on the airwaves: Mr Hague, the new Commons Leader; Michael Gove, downgraded to Chief Whip; Esther McVey, who remains employment minister but wins the right to attend the Cabinet, and Grant Shapps, who keeps his job as Tory chairman.
It is now very clear that their message in the run-up to the election will be a hard-edged populism focusing on the economy, welfare, immigration and, of course, Europe.