In recent weeks British government visitors to Berlin have been confronted with a persistent question: when will David Cameron make up his mind about who he’ll send to Brussels?
Picking a European commissioner is a big decision: Tony Blair sent Peter Mandelson, who went on to become the EU trade commissioner. Gordon Brown nominated Cathy Ashton, who picked up the foreign affairs post. There is a tradition of Brits landing relatively big jobs — and, ergo, power and influence. But prime ministers need to send someone with enough heft and zest.
Angela Merkel is not racked with indecision. She has already decided to reappoint her current commissioner, Günther Oettinger, and her impatience with Britain’s nomination is a sign that she wants to help our candidate land a plum job. Having let Mr Cameron down over Jean-Claude Juncker — she told him she would oppose Junker’s becoming commission president, only to leave the Prime Minister fighting alone — Merkel is keen to make amends. One recent German delegation to London indicated that if the British nominee were strong enough, the coveted internal market post lay waiting. Cameron still hasn’t decided who to pick. The ideal candidate would have held a senior Cabinet post, be familiar with how Brussels works and speak French and German. In other words, Cameron needs a Eurosceptic version of Nick Clegg.
Until recently, Andrew Lansley was the firm favourite for the job. He even took to badinaging in French in the corridors of the House of Commons with Tory MPs. But in recent weeks support for him has fallen away. No. 10 has been irritated by the hints he has dropped about having been offered the job. It has also grasped that nominating someone as compensation for dropping them from the Cabinet is a recipe for getting a second-tier job.
David Willetts, the science and universities minister, is keen to be sent to the Commission. He knows how to play the Brussels game: Britain has become the biggest beneficiary of EU research funds on his watch. He’s well known on the European circuit, too, an attendee at the Franco-British Colloque and has deep links to the Konrad Adenauer foundation. He is fluent in German, which is a major plus, given how dominant Germany now is in the EU. He is also a sociable cove. But I detect surprisingly little enthusiasm in No. 10 for the idea of Commissioner Willetts. One longstanding friend of the Prime Minister tells me that Cameron hasn’t really forgiven him for backing David Davis in the 2005 leadership contest.
Normally, when Downing Street has a problem it can’t solve, it sends for Michael Fallon — which is why he currently has three ministerial jobs. As a business and energy minister, Fallon spends an inordinate amount of time in Brussels and ran the PM’s European regulation taskforce. But his great skill is putting out fires, so he’d be missed in Whitehall. He is also not a Cabinet minister, which could count against his getting the kind of senior post that Britain wants.
Another promising candidate, were he not too junior, is David Lidington, who is well known in Brussels and every other EU capital, having been Europe minister for four years. Cameron is an admirer: when one visitor to No. 10 urged him to replace Lidington with someone more Eurosceptic, he angrily responded that Lidington was the most effective junior minister he had. But to send someone who isn’t a Cabinet minister is to accept that Britain will take up one of the lower-ranking positions in Brussels: the digital agenda, regional policy or inter-institutional relations and administration.
Owen Paterson is probably the closest there is to a Eurosceptic Clegg. He speaks both French and German well enough to do business in them and as Environment Secretary is in charge of a department whose main job is dealing with EU rules. But it’s unclear whether Cameron would feel comfortable sending such a committed Eurosceptic to Brussels. Nick Clegg certainly wouldn’t — he would blow a fuse if Cameron made such a choice. The European parliament, which vets all such appointments, might see it as an act of aggression, and respond accordingly.
No. 10 knows that nominating a female candidate would increase Britain’s chances of landing a senior role. Juncker has promised that his commission will put many more women in top positions than Barroso’s did. But Downing Street’s scramble to find a suitable woman has run up against its own scepticism of several of its female Cabinet ministers. The Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers, is a former MEP. But she is not well regarded in No. 10. Justine Greening, the International Development Secretary, also lacks fans.
Those who have discussed the appointment with senior No. 10 figures in recent days believe that there is momentum building behind Michael Howard, Cameron’s predecessor as Tory leader. As a former Home Secretary, he has enough heft to command a senior position in the commission. His appointment would delight Tory Eurosceptics. But his public pronouncements on the EU are not so incendiary as to justify the European Parliament trying to block him.
Then again, Lord Howard is 73 and hasn’t been involved in frontline politics since he handed over to Cameron nine years ago. Those who have worked with him say that Howard won’t tout himself for the role but that he is open to the prospect of doing one last big job. Mentally he is as sharp as he ever was. His proximity to Cameron may well make up for his recent absence from the political scene.
The Prime Minister does not have long to make up his mind — the makeup of the next commission will be discussed at a European summit next week. But the situation the Prime Minister finds himself in now is a reminder that doing well in Europe requires preparation. If he survives the election, the success of his second term will be determined by his ability to renegotiate new and better terms of EU membership for Britain. Boring as it may be, this does require careful planning. There’ll be no easy escape from a European essay crisis.
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