In Stephen Barclay, Brexiteers finally get their cabinet minister for no deal

The appointment of the little-known health minister reflects the scale of opposition to May’s Brexit plans – and Downing Street’s control of negotiations. 

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Third time lucky? Theresa May has appointed Stephen Barclay, a junior health minister, to succeed Dominic Raab as Brexit Secretary.

The North East Cambridgeshire MP is a former Treasury minister and, as per Dexeu’s occupational requirements, is a Brexiteer. That’s about it. Unlike his two predecessors, he is neither a rising star of the government payroll (like Dominic Raab) nor a commander of any great personal loyalty among his fellow Eurosceptics (like David Davis).

That much, of course, is obvious – we know that Michael Gove was Theresa May’s first choice for the role. That Barclay was the next best Leaver willing to take the job reflects the breadth and depth of opposition to the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal among the surviving members of her cabinet and Conservative MPs. As well-liked as he is by many colleagues, Barclay's appointment will not raise morale. 

Frankly, the Prime Minister has done well to fill the job with a Brexiteer or indeed fill it at all – some on Whitehall believed that Dexeu would be wound down and folded into the ministerial brief of David Lidington, the de facto deputy prime minister and Europhile, or given to a May loyalist who voted Remain in 2016, such as James Brokenshire. An appointment in either vein would have been taken as a provocation by many Tory backbenchers.

Less important than the fact that May has managed to fill the job, however, is the decision Downing Street has taken to heavily circumscribe its remit – or at least stop indulging the fiction that its holder will have any responsibility for negotiations with the EU. Barclay has been tasked with ensuring “domestic preparedness” ahead of Brexit, with the PM and the Cabinet Office’s Europe Unit, led by Olly Robbins, responsible for what Davis and Raab wrongly assumed they were responsible for. The less than A-List identity of their successor has finally given Downing Street cover to admit that Dexeu was never quite what the Brexiteers thought it was.

Despite this, there is a certain irony about the remit Barclay has been given. Leavers within and without government spent much of 2016 and 2017 complaining that the government had done insufficient planning for leaving the EU without a deal. Their proposed remedy was a cabinet minister for no-deal preparations. In Barclay, they have finally got one – but not in the circumstances or timeframe that anybody would have desired.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.