Earlier this week, the Remain campaign wheeled out a big gun: Theresa May. One can imagine her being deployed again during the run-up to June 23 – during the BBC’s big TV debate only two dates before the vote, for example. Or, since the Home Secretary’s case for staying in the EU is not quite the same as Downing Street’s, George Osborne could be utilised for that occasion instead.
David Cameron, the holder of the third great office of state, will presumably not appear, on the broad ground that the Prime Minister should only debate with the Leader of the Opposition. (There is a further complication, in that Jeremy Corbyn may participate himself, in which case he would be placed not on the opposite side of the stage to David Cameron but on the same one. This might not be a look that Downing Street wants to have.)
But whatever happens, it is hard to picture the holder of the fourth great office being sent in – Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary. This is not simply because he has smoothly travelled the arc from Euro-scepticism (joining Michael Gove in 2013 to say that he would leave the EU as it stands) to Euro-enthusiasm with displaying any sign of discomfort while undertaking the journey.
Nor is it just because the Foreign Secretary conceals a keeness of mind – he is highly intelligent – behind a cautiousness of style which he has honed to perfection. The two biggest factors in the EU referendum campaign to date have been the economy (which is the Chancellor’s bag, and on which Remain is concentrating) and immigration (which is May’s, and on which Leave is pinning many of its hopes.)
Significantly, Barack Obama’s intervention was trade-focused. The foreign policy aspect of the choice – what would happen to the EU itself were Britain to leave, and to our place in the world – have been a poor relation. The Foreign Secretary has not been absent from the debate: he made a major speech in March. However, it was essentially an attack dog exercise, rubbishing “the Norway model”, “the bilateral model” and “the WTO model”, as he put it.
That speech will have had its place in the Downing Street grid, and its nature will surely have been decided there. This is a reminder of how foreign policy, under successive governments, has been subsumed into Number Ten – the most vivid illustration being the Iraq War. The Libyan intervention and 2013 vote on Syria, two of the most significant and controversial policy initiatives during the last Parliament, were driven from Downing Street.
To be sure, William Hague helped to restore the morale and workings of the Foreign Office after its lean years under New Labour. (Now there’s someone who would do a fabulous debating job for Remain during that BBC debate.) But the department is palpably not shaping the Government’s EU policy. Indeed, the Treasury was poised to take charge at one point: last year, the Prime Minister indicated that the Chancellor would lead the renegotiation.
Today, Hammond is in Cuba. “Britain and Cuba have outlooks on the world and systems of government that are very different,” he remarked on arrival in Havana. You don’t say! It would be an exaggeration to say that the Foreign Office now has latitude to form only the parts of foreign policy that Number Ten has little engagement with. But amidst that caricature is a glimpse of truth.