In the UK there is growing support within the Conservative Party for David Cameron to appoint a new Minister for Europe. Tim Bale assesses why the incumbent minister, David Lidington, is so unpalatable to Conservative MPs, noting that his moderation and pragmatism work against him with Tory Eurosceptics, who not only misunderstand the nature of the EU’s impact on member states’ governments but have a naive view of how much power and influence one man can have on policy. He argues that attempts to appease Eurosceptics are likely to be self-defeating and could have negative repercussions for the stability of the coalition.
Amidst all the ‘silly-season’ speculation about a widely-expected cabinet reshuffle to be carried out by David Cameron, there is one name that always seems to come up when lists are compiled of who will or who ought to go. If they are to be believed – and it is hard to know whether those who have compiled them really do have the inside track or whether they are simply hoping somehow to influence the process – then David Lidington might not be around much longer as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Minister for Europe.
Lidington’s supposedly imminent departure (hopefully, for his sake, involving a move upwards or sideways rather than demotion to the backbenches) doesn’t seem, at least on any publicly available evidence, to have anything to do with anything he has done. Rather it has more to do with what he hasn’t done – or even with what he is.
David Lidington is undoubtedly one of the smartest members of the parliamentary Conservative party and the coalition government. Even if you choose to discount his status as a double-winner of TV’s University Challenge and his considerable promise as an historian, few who meet him could fail to be impressed. Unfortunately – for it’s precisely what counts against him in the eyes of those Conservatives hoping he’ll soon be going – what also comes across is his inherent moderation, his pragmatism and his open-mindedness. If politics and government were a strictly (or perhaps even halfway) rational activity, then these are exactly the kind of qualities that any Prime Minister would like to see in all his frontbenchers – all the more so because, frankly, they are hardly in plentiful supply.
But, as we all know, politics is no more rational than any other human activity. It is as much about symbols as substance. Consequently, in picking his ministers, a PM sometimes has to think more about the signal sent by a particular appointment than the competence or suitability of the man or woman in question. Objectively, Lidington looks like the perfect incumbent – a round peg in a round hole. His problem is that, when it comes to ‘their’ Europe Minister, the parliamentary party, or at least that part of it that is causing Cameron most headaches at the moment, wants a square peg in a round hole – someone prepared to be the personification of Britain’s traditional role as the EU’s awkward partner.
So Eurosceptic has the Conservative Party become that, unless the Minister for Europe is kicking up a stink, telling it like it is, and sticking it to the bureaucrats of Brussels – behaving to all intents and purposes like a slightly politer version of UKIP’s Nigel Farage – then he’s selling out the party and the country. As such, he should be replaced forthwith by someone who’s not only ready to spend his every waking hour defending British sovereignty but also absolutely determined to repatriate powers and renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU. Accordingly, Mr Cameron is called on – indeed, warned – by ‘influential [but unnamed] figures on the right’ that Lidington should make way for ‘a confirmed Eurosceptic’ like Graham Brady or Mark Francois, both of whom were Shadow Minister for Europe when the Tories were in opposition.
There are four things wrong with this idea. The first has already been set down with admirable clarity by the Conservative-supporting political commentator, Matthew D’Ancona, namely that ‘Cameron should know better than to appease the Tory Right: recent history shows they always come back for more.’ Delivering Lidington’s head on a plate to those who believe the answer to the government’s current unpopularity lies in giving the public bigger and bigger doses of ersatz-Thatcherism is unlikely to turn things around electorally, and it won’t even placate those who are convinced that it will.
The second thing wrong with the idea is that the suggested replacements (assuming for the moment that they were willing to play things the way their nameless supporters want them to once in post) would look like a deliberate snub to an increasingly assertive Lib Dem leadership. It may be, of course, that an early end to the coalition is inevitable, but it seems unlikely right now that Cameron actually wants to hasten its collapse.
The third thing wrong with demands that Lidington should go is that they betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the European Union and a hopelessly naïve faith in the power of one man or woman to effect a change in British policy. Even a cursory glance at academic studies of the EU’s impact on its member states tells us that the days when a country’s foreign ministry somehow acted as the gatekeeper of all things European are long gone. The genius of the EU – whether you regard that genius as malign or benign – is that it gradually pulls into its orbit (or, more accurately, its network) politicians and civil servants from each and every one of the supposedly ‘domestic’ departments which look after matters in which Europe enjoys competence. As a result, there is no one minister ‘in charge’ of the UK’s relationship with the EU. Even if there were, a quick look at the non-EU-related responsibilities of the Minister for Europe, available on the FCO’s website, suggests that he or she would have his or her work cut out to do that particular job properly.
Finally, there are – you would hope – rather more pressing things on the Prime Minister’s mind than Europe at the moment, except, of course, insofar as it impacts on the British economy. David Cameron has always said he isn’t out to engineer ‘a big bust-up’ with the EU – and his experience of the pathetically temporary opinion poll boost provided by the pre-Christmas spat over the fiscal stability pact will surely only have reinforced that view. It’s not only sceptics who suspect that William Hague’s review of the balance of competences between the EU and the UK is more about putting it off than bringing it on.
Of course, a big bust-up may in the end come in handy if the economy doesn’t recover and the Tories are forced, faute de mieux, to fight the next election on a tub-thumpingly negative and nationalist platform. Certainly, the pressure to do that if (I would even venture when) they come third to UKIP at the European Parliament elections will be immense. If Cameron wants to resist that pressure, he should avoid moving Lidington or, if he has already decided to do so, then at least ensure that he is replaced by someone who can be trusted to rock the boat but not to capsize it.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Tim Bale – Queen Mary, University of London
Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron (Polity, 2010). His latest book is The Conservatives since 1945: the Drivers of Party Change (Oxford University Press, 2012).