Simon Usherwood (Open University)*
Monday’s major reshuffle in the UK was simultaneously not a shock and completely unexpected. Suella Braverman’s riling of PM Rishi Sunak has been weeks in the making and the events around Armistice Sunday were simply the icing on the sacking cake as far as Number 10 was concerned: the damage of keeping her inside the tent had come to outweigh whatever traction she might have with parts of the electorate.
But if Braverman’s departure was a given, the shift of Foreign Secretary James Cleverly into the Home Office role and – especially – his replacement by David (now Lord) Cameron was much more of a bolt from the blue.
Cleverly has been a central figure in the normalising of UK-EU relations over the past year, through the Truss interregnum and the return to good faith implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement and Trade & Cooperation Agreement. His work in supporting and negotiating the Windsor Framework during last winter was emblematic of a senior British politician prepared to do hard work on technical issues without making a public spectacle.
While Cameron is not really any different in terms of ideology or style, the changing out of personnel inevitably comes with disruption as everyone finds their feet once again. And to that extent, this reshuffle is going to impose some drag on the various negotiations currently in train.
But perhaps more important are two other aspects of this reshuffle: one personal, one structural.
David Cameron’s strength as a Foreign Secretary will be his name recognition and hefty contact book: he is a known quantity and comes with a dose of gravitas that tends to attach itself to former leaders.
However, in the specifically European context, that history comes with the questions attached to his role in the calling of, and losing of, the 2016 referendum.
On a generous interpretation, Cameron underestimated the willingness of his party to make a political football of EU membership and overestimated his powers of persuasion during the campaign. But even on this reading, European capitals might reasonably ask whether he has subsequently developed enough understanding of what is now an increasingly technical operationalisation of relations.
In particular, given the numerous matters demanding his attention, will Cameron want to make Europe a central part of his second act in politics, given how that turned out last time?
And this is the structural aspect: is Cameron, and his party, going to be around long enough for any of this to matter?
Already we have been seeing the signs that the EU has been winding down active work on relations with the UK until the general election that is due at some point next year. With polling still giving Labour a significant lead, the assumption is that there is minimal value in investing in work that might get thrown over with a change of government. Changing the point person in London only reinforces that pattern.
That the reshuffle seems to reflect a general lack of certainty over direction and presentation by Sunak in the run-up to the election will also give pause for thought among interlocuters elsewhere and make it harder to address those matters that necessarily need to be dealt with right now, such as car batteries.
Taken as a whole, perhaps Cameron might be spared too much ‘banging on about Europe’ as Europe awaits a vote that might see him return to his garden shed.
*Simon Usherwood is Professor of Politics and International Studies at The Open University.
The views expressed in this blog reflect the position of the author and not necessarily that of the Brexit Institute Blog.