Politics

Could Michael Howard be the next EU Commissioner?

A big job is in the offing — but only for the right person

12 July 2014

9:00 AM

12 July 2014

9:00 AM

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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  • fathomwest

    I bet Clegg gets it!

  • Ngaire Lowndes

    if the Cleggoron gets the job, that’s the end of negotiating to get concessions from the EU. We’ll have to invoke Article 50 to break free. On the other hand, with Clogg out of the way, Camoron could posture more convincingly to fool the Eurosceptics that he’s on their side… I think I’d rather see the Undead revived.

    • Tim Baker

      you don’t have the power to invoke article 50

  • Denis_Cooper

    About fifteen years ago, when I suppose the author was still at school, somebody pointed out to me that every EU Commissioner must swear an oath of office that he will serve the EU as a whole, without giving any preference to his home country or the views of its government; yet we still have this Tory-inspired crap that the person nominated by Cameron would be “our” Commissioner, so is it being supposed that he or she would swear that oath, and then break it?

  • Kingstonian

    Re: David Willetts “Cameron hasn’t really forgiven him for backing David Davis in the 2005 leadership contest”. So the decision about who gets this crucial role comes down to the infantile egotism of the Prime Minister. Pathetic!

    • Tim Baker

      it’s called politics

  • Kitty MLB

    Angela Merkel is losing patience with Cameron. Well that’s good, what does she suppose England to be? poodle of the EU. She showed her true colours recently.
    I believed Tony Blair is after the EU commissioner job.. heaven forbid, but if it were
    Nick Clegg, although would be nice to send the little EU Pavlov Dog to Brussels
    I am not too sure he would work in our best interests.

    • Tim Baker

      not poodle, a chihuahua

  • Peter Stroud

    All those reviewed in this article could do a better job than the pathetic Cathy Ashton.

    • Tim Baker

      watch out for President Clinton 2016

  • Terence Hale

    Hi,
    “Angela Merkel is losing patience with David Cameron again. This time, it’s a good sign”. Jeremy Hunt or Boris Johnson should be considered, both “big job” specialist. With passed example of Mr. Muddlelson and Mrs. Ashton with a holiday in Spain qualifying her as foreign affairs commissioner they stand a good chance.

    • Tim Baker

      Boris wants to be PM

  • Ian Walker

    Now that he looks like disappearing in the reshuffle to make way for a token woman, maybe sending Eric Pickles to Brussels would send the right message.

  • Andrew Turvey

    Nearly half of other European countries have already decided on their nominee and are busy working on getting them a top job. What is Cameron playing at? Get on with it for goodness sake. If we end up with a second tier job he’ll have no-one but himself to blame.

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