Viewed through the currently overweening lens of the EU referendum debate, David Cameron’s decision to promote Stephen Crabb to replace the departed Iain Duncan Smith smacks of another bout of ill-judged, heavy-handed Remain-ery.
The Prime Minister has boosted pro-EU Welsh MPs along the entire chain of promotions that stem from this decision: Crabb himself is for Remain, as are both Alun Cairns, his replacement as Welsh Secretary, and Guto Bebb, who is replacing Cairns as Under-Secretary of State at the Wales Office. The balance of Leave to Remain in the Cabinet has not been maintained.
But it is important to remember always that there is more – much more – to conservatism than Europe, and with this broader perspective Crabb’s promotion is a cannier, more interesting move.
For a start, despite their divergent positions on the referendum it is far from a slight to Duncan Smith. For a start, Crabb far from a dyed-in-the-wool Europhile.
More importantly, the MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire has a big following on Duncan Smith’s compassionate, social-justice wing of the Party. He is heavily involved in the “Compassionate Conservative Caucus” – which we dubbed the ‘New Tory Left’ – launched earlier this year by Tim Montgomerie, formerly of this parish.
Alongside Ruth Davidson, the Scottish leader with whom he seems closely allied, single-mum-and-council-house-raised Crabb is also part of a new generation of senior Conservatives who are trying to break the Party’s privileged, South of England image.
So European manoeuvres aside, his appointment could be seen as demonstrating the Prime Minister’s appreciation of Duncan Smith’s welfare reform programme.
Finally, it goes without saying that Crabb’s promotion is a big step forward for the growing Welsh Tory caucus. Whilst David Mundell may have no option but to serve as Scottish Secretary for at least this Parliament, we now have a breadth of representation – and depth of support – in Wales that Conservative MPs can start breaking out of the Welsh Office. This is a very welcome development.
(It is also one giant step for ministers with beards, we should not forget.)
Finally, this promotion will boost the new Work and Pensions Secretary’s prospects in the leadership contest due before the next general election. Writing at CapX, Bruce Anderson tipped him for the top job only two days ago. With a higher national profile and an opportunity to impress in a major brief, it seems a more plausible prospect today.