In the hours after David Cameron unveiled the biggest cabinet reshuffle in a number of years, the Scottish first minister Alex Salmond took to the airwaves. Putting the eurosceptic Philip Hammond in charge of the foreign office had put “one hand on the exit door leading the UK out of the EU”.
Sending hardline Priti Patel to the Treasury also sparked responses from yes campaigners, given her previous comments that the debate on Scotland’s future presented an opportunity to cut its funding. With Iain Duncan Smith meanwhile, staying put at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), our panelists consider whether the reshuffle is of any relevance to the referendum.
John Curtice, Professor of Politics, University of Strathclyde/ScotCen Social Research
The reality is that the reshuffle will have very little if any impact on the referendum.
On the question of getting a more eurosceptic foreign secretary in the form of Phillip Hammond, once upon a time Hague was supposed to be very sceptic, but lo and behold the Foreign Office worked its charms on him. In any event, you have to remember that the Europe issue is not central for voters in this campaign because they are not so enthusiastic about EU membership to vote either yes or no simply because they think that would the best way of ensuring Scotland remains a member. Both sides keep banging on about Europe, but it just does not have traction with most voters.
As for Salmond’s points about Priti Patel, the truth is that the Barnett formula is becoming less important because of the 2012 Scotland Act, which will eventually allow and require the Scottish government to raise some of its own revenues. We are then promised further moves in this direction by all three unionist parties in the event that Scotland votes no.
In any case, what do you think these ministers are going to be able to do in 10 months? The exchequer secretary to the Treasury is not going to be in a position to rewrite the Barnett formula in the next few months. It is too late.
Another point is this: look at the fate of the coalition government ministers who have implemented public service reform. Both of the ministers that introduced what the SNP would want to call “privatisation” –- Michael Gove at Education and Andrew Lansley at Health – have now bitten the dust. There is a lesson there. On that agenda, the Tories look as though they are going to be once bitten, twice shy. In that sense, the reshuffle might even undermine the SNP narrative about the coalition.
Iain Duncan Smith is not particularly a hate figure in Scotland or anywhere else, partly because he’s a complex character who will tell you he is trying to improve the position of the poor. So his staying in post is unlikely to make much difference to Better Together either. The truth is that the bedroom tax has effectively been neutralised as an issue in Scotland because even the Conservatives agree housing benefit should now be devolved, which is a tacit admission that the bedroom tax was a mistake.
Meanwhile it is not clear that IDS’s universal credit scheme is going to survive, due to implementation problems. I suspect nobody else wanted to inherit the DWP this side of the general election, and that helps explain why he is still in post.
Because we are so close to the election, the reshuffle frankly has few implications if any for this parliament. The only impact is the influence these new ministers will have on the Conservative manifesto. This includes the sacking of Dominic Grieve as attorney general. As has already emerged, this will make it easier for the Tories to say they want to reduce the role of the European Court of Human Rights. But nothing will happen in this parliament because the Liberal Democrats will not back it. In short, it is all about possibilities for the future when the referendum will have long been over.
Trevor Salmon, Emeritus Professor of Politics and International Relations, University of Aberdeen
On the Hammond appointment, the politics may be more subtle than anyone has suggested. You could argue that it’s not a bad thing to appear eurosceptic when you enter negotiations over the future of Europe. It may be a bargaining ploy. People in Brussels are already saying that the reshuffle shows that Cameron is serious. So it may be that Salmond is completely wrong, that this takes the UK one step away from the exit.
On the other hand, are they wooing Europe or alienating her? Cameron’s choice of new British European commissioner is almost like a slap in the face to Europe. If Cameron really does want us to stay in Europe, he’s got to find something good to say about it. He can’t rubbish it all the time and then say we still have to be a member. I read his changes as being about placating the Tory right and neutering Ukip, but Cameron does have to get the balance right.
Will any of this affect Scottish attitudes to staying in the UK? I wish it were so, but if you ask 100 people in Union Street in Aberdeen could they name their MEP, could they name who’s on the European Council, could they name the current president of the European Commission, hardly any of them would know any of them. The problem with Europe is that it’s over there. People read about it in the papers, but they have almost no information about it. They won’t vote in the referendum because of Europe. In my view, they will vote for economic reasons.
On the question of Iain Duncan Smith, most members of the public wouldn’t even know he was in charge of government policy on benefits. He’s almost not on the radar. He just doesn’t have the same infamy as someone like Michael Forsyth, or Michael Gove, who is to the south of England what Forsyth was to the Scots. IDS staying won’t matter to many Scottish people either. In any case, many people in jobs actually think the government is doing OK on benefits. Some of that will rub off in Scotland too.
One other question for Salmond might be, should he refresh his cabinet in the same way? In some ways he’s very lucky because some of his ministers are very good, but they have also been around for an awfully long time.