The UK Government’s ministerial reshuffle may lead to further tensions within the Westminster Coalition, but it has been one of pretty limited change, as far as the territorial offices are concerned. Full details of all the new ministers can be found on the No 10 website, here.
There has been no change at the Scotland Office at all, with Michael Moore and David Mundell remaining in place. Lord Wallace does so too, as Advocate General for Scotland. The opportunity of putting a more ‘campaigning’ politician in charge has not been taken, even with the independence referendum looming, and although the heavy legislative work of getting what is now the Scotland Act 2012 drafted and onto the statute book is now done. The only major item of legislative business on the immediate agenda is the section 30 order regarding the referendum (which Severin Carrell suggests here is close to agreement between the two governments).
The Wales Office has seen the departure of Cheryl Gillan as Secretary of State, and the promotion of David Jones, the former junior minister, to replace her. That follows a determined lobbying campaign from Welsh Conservative MPs for the new Secretary of State to have a Welsh seat, and suggests minimal change in the UK Government’s approach. Jones has already emphasised his desire for a ‘very good business-like relationship’ with the Welsh Government. The interesting shifts of role and personnel are at the junior level. Stephen Crabb has been promoted within the Whip’s office (though he was never the ‘Welsh whip’), and also made parliamentary under-secretary of state. Baroness (Jenny) Randerson, former AM and Welsh Lib Dem Minister, has also become an (unpaid) parliamentary under-secretary, for which the Lib Dems are said to have fought hard. Given her company among colleagues who have been regarded as ‘devo-sceptics’ (though they now emphasise their support for devolution), it’s interesting that she emphasises that she is a ‘committed devolutionist’ in the Welsh Lib Dem press notice announcing her appointment.
Since 1999, a government whip in the Lords has dealt with Wales Office business when needed. These announcements suggest an inversion of that approach, with a whip helping with Commons business but a dedicated minister in the Lords.
The big question for the new Wales Office team will be how to respond to the Silk Commission report when part 1 of that appears in the autumn, of course. There may, of course, be serious issues about making the current legislative arrangements work as well. And if the occasional rumours of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition in Cardiff Bay should come to pass, things could get very interesting at Gwydyr House.
The Northern Ireland Office has seen something of a clear-out, with the departure of both Owen Paterson (to DEFRA) and Hugo Swire (to the Foreign Office). Their replacements are Theresa Villiers and Mike Penning. The most likely implication of that change will probably be the demise of plans for devolving corporation tax. The strongest advocate for that in government (whether in London or Belfast) has been Owen Paterson, and without him to push this problematic idea, it’s hard to see how it will withstand Treasury opposition and the practical and financial difficulties of devolving it. The ministerial working group considering it was supposed to have resolved matters at its meeting in June, but it just agreed to further consideration of matters over the summer and a further meeting in September.
Perhaps the most important point about what has happened is that yet again the UK Government has retained the three separate territorial offices, even though in many ways that is now an anachronism. The looming Scottish independence referendum means that it is hard to change that in the foreseeable future, but even so the attachment to three separate offices with decreasing amounts to do is quite an anomaly. That is nonetheless a reflection of how conservative, or more accurately path-dependent, the machinery of government can be.