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Ministers Reflect: new interviews after Brexit decision

One by-product of the EU referendum was the end of the Cameron administration – and a big government shake-up. Our latest Ministers Reflect interviews capture the thoughts of those who have left the frontbenches as a result. Nicola Hughes gives us the highlights. 

Today we publish 14 Ministers Reflect interviews with ministers who resigned or were dropped from government since the EU referendum, including:

The interviews give us a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of ministers as well as insights into some major policy challenges: whether George Freeman, the UK’s first Life Sciences Minister, trying to embed a new approach to cross-government working, Lord Freud implementing Universal Credit, or Alistair Burt reflecting on the creation of the Child Support Agency during his first spell as a minister in the 90s.   

The interviews show what it was like governing during a turbulent period for UK politics. “Inevitably you’re shaped by the big events”, says George Freeman, reflecting that once you add parliamentary recesses, there was little “runway time” to get things done in government.

From Coalition to Conservative government

Few pundits expected a Conservative majority at the 2015 election, and ministers noted that it took a while for the civil service to get used to it. Winning a majority undoubtedly gave ministers a renewed sense of unity and purpose, and changed the atmosphere: “I can’t put my finger on the difference, but it made it more relaxed, less tense”, says Desmond Swayne.

Some like Hugo Swire were relieved that the Government could get policies through more quickly: “…we didn’t have to listen to the Lib Dems whinging on about whatever they were whinging on about – compulsory sandals or tofu for lunch or whatever.”

Nonetheless, nearly all the ministers felt the 2010–15 Coalition, not least because of the larger majority it provided, was a stable government providing a healthy level of challenge and scrutiny. As Stephen Crabb says, “issues and policies had to be fought over a bit harder… by the time things reached the Cabinet or got floated in the press, it had been thought through a bit more.”

Brexit – the elephant in the room

The EU referendum put ministers in an odd position, as they were allowed to campaign for either side. Meanwhile, much government business continued as normal but “Parliament was in semi-hibernation”. From March 2016 new policy announcements ground to a halt, and as Nicky Morgan says, “…there’s no doubt that the oxygen and the attention of government was sucked out of it whilst the focus was on the referendum”.

Ministers have more direct exposure to the EU than most backbenchers: negotiating with counterparts and seeing in detail the interplay between EU and UK regulations. Two ministers from the same department – Department for Culture, Media and Sport – held very different positions about Europe but found that ministerial experience only “strengthened” their views. John Whittingdale, a long-standing Leave advocate, laments the “number of times we were told we couldn’t do something because of Europe”, citing problems with state-aid clearance for the broadband programme rollout and the cost of EU data protection regulations. But for Ed Vaizey, being Culture Minister “made me more Europhile… I understood why some countries wanted a regulation that was European-wide and why occasionally, it was a good thing to compromise”, giving the example of net neutrality.

In spite of their opposing positions, ministers were keen to avoid rows: Whittingdale and Vaizey approached the run-up to the referendum “with gallows humour” and tried to prevent stories about conflicting views on how Brexit would affect their sector appearing in the press. Similarly, Theresa Villiers “tried to avoid anything that looked like it was an attack on a colleague”.

After the referendum

A change in Number 10 and a reshuffle resulted in many ‘Cameroon’ ministers losing their jobs, as departments were restructured and some ministerial posts were abolished to make way for new Brexit ministers.

Now, much ministerial energy will be devoted to the mammoth task of taking Britain out of the EU. Oliver Letwin, who spent the last six years at the heart of government, sounded a note of cautious optimism about the new administration’s ability to do it: “[Brexit is] probably the most significant diplomatic and political challenge the country has faced in modern times. I think we’re perfectly well equipped to meet it; whether we will do so successfully remains to be seen.”

Ministers Reflect is a unique archive of interviews with former government ministers. It is designed to record – in their own words – what it takes to be an effective minister, the challenges ministers face, and what more can be done to support ministers in driving forward their policy objectives.

You can read all of the interview transcripts in full and let us know what you think, on the Ministers Reflect website.

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