Europe Minister David Lidington has already noticed the pace picking up as the government looks to renegotiate its terms with the EU ahead of a referendum.
The Aylesbury MP was ‘spared the catwalk up Downing Street’ after Prime Minister David Cameron opted to keep him in the role he has held since 2010 following the Conservative’s victory in this month’s general election.
“It was all very routine,” he said.
“We got a message through from his private secretary to my private secretary saying ‘no change, please carry on’.
“I then had a chat with his chief of staff who said (Mr Cameron) thinks I’m doing a very good job and now we’ve got to do the negotiations for real.
“I know the people involved and the issues pretty thoroughly but the pace has stepped up. I have seen the first draft of the referendum bill and I will be having another meeting about that later this morning.
There may be more media to do both domestically in the UK but also to explain the British position to journalists elsewhere in EuropeDavid Lidington
“It is picking up pace – I’m very glad I’m not completely new to this portfolio.”
With the referendum likely to dominate headlines in the coming months and years, Mr Lidington could find himself thrust into the media spotlight.
“There may be more media to do both domestically in the UK but also to explain the British position to journalists elsewhere in Europe. I am meeting the Foreign Office press office this morning and talking about the need to ensure the British position is understood.”
Mr Lidington joked that the divides Europe has historically caused within the Conservative Party made the issue akin to ‘dancing on egg shells’.
He said the party was a ‘broad church’, with room for both Eurosceptics and Europhiles – he is ‘for being part of Europe but with serious reforms’.
He is confident the negotiations will be successful and powers wrestled back from the EU.
“If you look at opinion polls you will find levels of confidence (in Europe) are actually lower in France and Spain than in the UK. It would be wrong to think the disconnect is just a matter of concern to the British. That’s why I’m optimistic we’ve got a chance at successful reforms.
“There will be tough and difficult negotiations but I think there is growing recognition around the continent that Europe cannot go on the way it has been going.”
Labour leadership candidate Andy Burnham has called for the referendum to be held next year, but Mr Lidington said: “David Cameron has said the deadline is 2017 but if we can do it earlier we would welcome that.”
He said timing would depend not just on the negotiations but also the referendum bill’s journey through parliament, so ‘I can’t give any predictions’.
As well as the EU negotiations, Mr Lidington also identified two other priorities in his role.
“The very difficult relationship with Russia remains and how we encourage countries like Ukraine to strengthen their domestic reforms.
“There is also Cyprus where the UK is one of three countries to be formal guarantors of its independence. There is optimism about a settlement between Greek and Turkish Cypriots for the first time in more than 10 years.”
Mr Lidington, who joked that studying Tudor politics at Cambridge University was ‘very good training for government’, said his first experience of foreign affairs came when he was working for Douglas Hurd in the Foreign Office during the ‘fascinating’ time of the Berlin Wall coming down.
“Being able to come back has been an enormous privilege.”