Jonathan Caine, now Lord Caine, is by some margin the closest thing the Conservative Party has to a ‘Mr Northern Ireland’. He first became a special adviser at the Northern Irish Office back in 1991, and since the Tories’ return to office in 2010 has served as spad for both Theresa Villiers and Owen Paterson when they held the Ulster brief.
Now he’s back – this time as a minister, perhaps in acknowledgement of his new status as a noble lord. Brandon Lewis becomes the seventh Secretary of State to be able to call on his services. What does it tell us?
For starters, it will do nothing to dispel the mounting speculation that the Government intends to trigger Article 16. As I noted on Thursday, sources in Whitehall suggest that absent serious concessions by the EU they would have to move sometime this month, if London wanted to retain the confidence of the unionists and stop its local allies in Northern Ireland being outflanked by more radical elements.
If they do, Caine will be better placed than most to help Lewis navigate what will probably be a spectacular row. In particular, he can try to ensure the UK Government actually makes a public case for what its various treaty obligations, especially those arising from the Belfast Agreement, actually are, rather than allowing it to yet again get gulled into accepting a version dreamed up in Dublin and Brussels.
A second interpretation (although they aren’t mutually exclusive) is that Boris Johnson might be starting to think about a change of leadership at the NIO.
It is no secret that Conor Burns, a long-standing ally of the Prime Minister, wants the job. Installing Caine, and giving him some time to get his feet under his desk, ahead of any reshuffle would be one way of ensuring some continuity of political experience at the Department in the event of another reshuffle.