Eurosceptic named new UK foreign minister as EU vote looms

Eurosceptic named new UK foreign minister as EU vote looms

Tuesday, July 15, 2014 2:27 pm

LONDON (AFP) – British Prime Minister David Cameron named arch-eurosceptic Philip Hammond as his new foreign secretary on Tuesday in a major cabinet reshuffle ahead of next year’s general election.

Former defence secretary Hammond, who replaces William Hague, supports Britain leaving the European Union unless significant powers are returned to London before a referendum promised for 2017.

Philip Hammond

Philip Hammond

Tuesday’s reshuffle is the biggest since Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition government took office in 2010 and marks a bid to broaden his party’s appeal at the election in May 2015.

The prime minister has pledged to hold a referendum on Britain leaving the EU in three years’ time if he stays in power.

Newspapers billed the reshuffle as a cull of the “pale, male and stale” which opened the door for a new wave of women to get ministerial jobs.

It also saw the government turn more eurosceptic as Cameron seeks to face down the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP), which many lawmakers fear could take seats from the Conservatives at the election.

“I think it (the reshuffle) will be interpreted in Europe as raising the stakes and showing that this is now getting more serious,” Mats Persson, director of the Open Europe think-tank in London, told AFP.

Most current opinion polls put the main opposition centre-left Labour party several points ahead of the centre-right Conservatives, with UKIP in third position ahead of Cameron’s centrist coalition partners the Liberal Democrats.

Hammond vowed that his approach to the EU would be one of “enthusiastic engagement with the reform agenda” at a press conference at Farnborough airshow south-west of London.

“But our position is very clear,” he added. “It won’t be the politicians in smoke-filled rooms who decide whether the deal is the right one.

“It will be the British people in a referendum who decide whether the deal is the right one and in Britain’s national interest.”

– ‘Won’t set the heather alight’ –

The 58-year-old new foreign secretary is seen as a safe pair of hands whose appointment will reassure eurosceptics.

“Hammond isn’t the kind of politician to set the heather alight,” wrote political commentator James Forsyth in a blog posting for the Spectator magazine.

“But the fact that someone who has said that they’d vote to leave if substantial powers were not returned to the UK in the renegotiation is now foreign secretary sends a clear message to the rest of the EU about the British position.”

He has been replaced as defence secretary by Michael Fallon, a veteran loyalist.

Cameron also said Tuesday he had nominated Jonathan Hill, the leader of parliament’s upper chamber the House of Lords, as Britain’s next EU Commissioner.

Hill, a political secretary to former prime minister John Major in the early 1990s, is little known even in Britain but was described by media as a mild eurosceptic.

As well as Hague, who chose to step down after four years in the job, around a dozen middle-aged, white male ministers are leaving Cameron’s government.

Many are being replaced by younger women only elected in 2010 but whose stock has been rising.

These include Nicky Morgan, a former lawyer who will take over from Michael Gove as education secretary, and Liz Truss, who takes the environment portfolio.

Cameron had promised in opposition to make a third of his government female but has fallen well short of this target until now.

Hague’s announcement that he was quitting as foreign minister, and would not seek reelection next year, signals the end of the political career of a man Cameron called “one of the leading lights of the Conservative Party for a generation”.

He led the Conservatives during a torrid period between 1997 and 2001.

As foreign secretary, he was a leading voice urging the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before the House of Commons last year voted down missile strikes in a major foreign policy blow to Cameron.

In recent months, he worked closely with Hollywood star Angelina Jolie on a high-profile campaign to end rape as a weapon of war.

Hague will remain in the cabinet as leader of the Commons, in charge of managing the government’s legislative programme, before stepping down as a lawmaker at next year’s election.

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