Sajid Javid’s appointment as Home Secretary following Amber Rudd’s resignation, coupled with James Brokenshire’s return, leaves unchanged the number of Cabinet ministers who voted Remain in the 2016 EU referendum. But the dynamics have changed. Javid’s opposition to a customs partnership proved decisive in deliberations of the Brexit cabinet sub-committee which had been previously been evenly divided given Rudd’s preference for close alignment with the EU.
This article considers the balance between soft and hard Brexiteers in the government and Conservative parliamentary party. It uses data on the positions of Conservative MPs in the EU referendum, although a degree of caution is required in doing so.
Some were ‘reluctant Remainers’, all bar Kenneth Clarke voted to trigger Article 50 and, as discussed below, policy preferences may not be the best predictor of an MP’s voting behaviour.
Government ministers by EU referendum position
Party change tends to be driven by a change of leader, of dominant faction or by an external shock. The EU referendum forced dramatic changes to Conservative policy but changes to the leadership and personnel have been out of sync.
There has been no influx of Leavers into government. MPs who voted Leave make up 44% of the 2017 Conservative cohort but 54% of backbenchers and 31% of the payroll vote. This disparity reflects, in part, the presence of the ‘dispossessed and never-possessed’ on the backbenches.
David Cameron promoted relatively few Eurosceptics. Only 17 of the 81 MPs who defied the whip on the 2011 EU referendum motion subsequently reached ministerial office.
Twenty of the MPs who currently attend Cabinet voted Remain and eight Leave. This is a higher number of Leavers than in 2016 (see Table), with Chris Grayling the only one to have been in Cabinet throughout. But there has been a net reduction of Leave-supporting junior ministers. Only two of the 12 junior ministers in the Cameron government who backed Leave reached Cabinet rank and five are now on the backbenches.
Among parliamentary private secretaries, who are not ministers but are part of the ‘payroll vote’, the number of Leavers has also declined since 2016. Theresa May did promote seven Leavers to junior ministerial positions and seven to PPS rank in the January 2018 reshuffle. Change is most evident among the Whips, the enforcers of party discipline, where the stark pro-Remain imbalance of 2016 has been addressed.
The number of Eurosceptic ministers may not have increased greatly, but some – notably David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson – hold key positions in departments critical to Brexit. The ministerial team at the Department for Exiting the EU includes two former chairs of the European Research Group, Steve Baker and Suella Braverman.
At the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove and George Eustice are shaping policy in an area where Brexit has far-reaching implications. However, the only other government departments with two or more Leave-supporting MPs in ministerial positions are less Brexit focused: the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (three Leavers), the Department for Transport (two) and the Department for Work and Pensions (two).
Eurosceptic ministers have, to date, accepted compromises made during the Brexit negotiations and persuaded backbenchers that they are a price worth paying. Despite the high attrition rate of Cabinet ministers, none of the departures since the general election resulted from disagreements on Brexit.
May will need good judgement and good luck if she is to prevent these. Like Major and Cameron, she has deferred crucial decisions and adopted imprecise positions. This approach has a limited shelf life and difficult choices must be made soon.
With Brexit legislation set to return to the Commons, Rudd’s resignation prompted speculation on whether she will join the soft Brexit ‘mutineers’, 11 of whom voted for Dominic Grieve’s amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and defeated the government. But MPs’ preferences may not be decisive in determining how they vote.
They may consider the EU referendum or general election vote in their constituency, the impact of Brexit on particular sectors of the economy, or opinion within their local association. Aspirations of ministerial office and socialisation may also be important.
Some will put policy goals before party. Hard Brexiteers have not rebelled in this session but they are stepping up the pressure. Many soft Brexiteers are biding their time, although there are differences over tactics (which is the key vote?) and goals (EFTA-EEA, a second referendum?) among their ranks. But the costs of rebellion are high under a minority government and the consequences unclear.
Soft Brexiteers have the numbers to defeat the government in a vote on a customs union. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act reduces the likelihood of an early general election, but neither hard nor soft Brexiteers can be certain that rebellion will deliver their preferred rather than least-favoured outcome, or know the consequences for May’s leadership.
Rudd’s demise likely removes the leading Remain contender from the running in a Conservative leadership election, but Eurosceptics have failed to find a candidate with broad appeal in previous contests. MPs may, then, be more likely to threaten rebellion than actually rebel – and credible threats may be sufficient to force policy change.
Note: Percentages refer to rows rather than columns (e.g. 71% of the payroll vote in Cameron’s government voted Remain). ‘Cabinet ministers’ include those who attend Cabinet despite not being full members. ‘Whips’ do not include the three in each period who also held a ministerial post.
By Philip Lynch is Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Leicester. Richard Whitaker is Associate Professor of European Politics at the University of Leicester. They are co-investigators on The UK in a Changing Europe project ‘Parties, Parliament and the Brexit Process’. This piece draws upon P. Lynch and R. Whitaker, ‘All Brexiteers Now? Brexit, the Conservatives and Party Change’, British Politics, Vol.13, No.1, 2018 which is available on open access.