Eurosceptics’ rise in British cabinet reshuffle may rebound on Cameron

PM David Cameron puzzles many with reshuffle of key cabinet positions

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 July, 2014, 9:32pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 July, 2014, 9:32pm

David Cameron has dramatically hardened his government's Eurosceptic stance for a battle with the European Union, but may have weakened his hand and increased the risk that Britain could crash out of the 28-nation bloc, analysts said.

In a purge of his cabinet on Tuesday, the British prime minister named Philip Hammond as his foreign secretary, picking a man who has said he would vote for Britain to exit the bloc in its current state.

Cameron then puzzled many commentators by picking a largely unknown ex-public relations man, Jonathan Hill, as Britain's next European commissioner.

Analysts say neither move will boost Cameron's hopes of renegotiating Britain's relationship with the EU before holding an in-or-out referendum in 2017, as he has vowed to do if he is re-elected next year.

They could even push Britain closer to an accidental departure, a situation that Cameron has said he did not want, as he supported membership of a reformed, less federal version of the EU.

"The danger of a political accident, in the sense that you have a 'No' vote in a potential referendum, that danger has increased," said Janis Emmanouilidis of the Brussels-based European Policy Centre.

Cameron's reshuffle raised eyebrows in Brussels as it happened on the eve of an EU leaders' summit at which key European jobs are likely to be decided.

William Hague's replacement as foreign secretary by Hammond was one of several moves in Cameron's cabinet reshuffle pointing to a Eurosceptic mood.

French-speaking Europhile attorney general Dominic Grieve was also pushed out, reportedly because he was seen as blocking plans to pull Britain from the European Convention of Human Rights.

The resignation of veteran pro-Europe figures such as Ken Clarke was also a blow, said Mats Persson, director of the Open Europe think-tank in London.

"I think it will be interpreted in Europe as raising the stakes and showing that this is now getting more serious," Persson said.

The reshuffle was driven mainly by political pressures at home, where the anti-EU UK Independence Party of Nigel Farage threatens to take seats from the Conservatives in Britain's election in May next year.

Cameron had "slightly increased the danger" of Britain leaving the EU by creating a "markedly more Eurosceptic government", said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform think-tank in London.

Cameron was also seen as thumbing his nose at Brussels by nominating an "unknown" as European commissioner.

"There will be a lot of people checking Lord Hill's Wikipedia page in Brussels," said Persson. Jonathan Hill was formerly the leader of the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the British parliament.

Compared with predecessors such as Neil Kinnock, Peter Mandelson and Chris Patten, Hill is little known in London or Brussels. Embarrassingly, it emerged that Hill had declared "non, non, non" in French when asked a month ago if he would accept the job.

Cameron's choice of Hill could weaken what influence Britain still had in the EU, while making it harder for Britain to get one of the senior commission posts it wanted, said Hylke Dijkstra, Marie Curie Fellow at Oxford University.

Overall, Cameron's decisions were more likely to cause problems than solve them, Emmanouilidis said.

"Cameron is manoeuvring himself into a corner at a European level and at home," he said.