Contrary to widespread speculation, the UK’s deputy Prime Minister (dPM), Nick Clegg, will not be seriously considered as a candidate at this time. The post, which is in the gift of PM David Cameron, looks set to be filled by a Conservative Cabinet Minister, writes Tim McNamara.
With the next commission due to start work on the 1st November, the time left for the PM to make a decision is already running out rapidly. As there are complex political calculations to be made, the outline planning should already have started and the final decision taken by the time of the party conference season this autumn.
According to well-placed conservative sources, the three early runners are Andrew Mitchell, Andrew Lansley and David Willetts. They each have specific advantages but any one of them may be the cause of unintended consequences. However, two other party figures could also emerge as viable candidates.
Cameron believes he owes a debt to Clegg for the way the coalition has stood the test of time. He would like to offer the job of European commissioner to him for a variety of personal reasons, but cold political calculation should stand in the way. In reality, Cameron needs a Conservative commissioner in order to advance his European Union agenda.
The Tories have to plan as if they will have a majority in the House of Commons after the next general election. At the core of their 2015 manifesto commitment will be a pledge to hold an IN/OUT referendum on EU membership. This has always been about shoring up the Tory vote in the face of a UKIP surge in the general election (plus keeping his hardline eurosceptic back benchers at bay).
In his heart of hearts, Cameron does not want the UK to leave the EU, but he now needs some signs of reform. To achieve his twin objectives he desperately needs a key ally at the heart of the EU. That person needs to have a particular skill set, i. e. be a negotiator, a conciliator and a strategist. Cameron seems unable to rely on Clegg not to pursue a more ardent pro-EU cause that would be highly contentious with Conservative MPs.
One key calculation that also has to be made is to avoid a by-election in a seat that could be winnable by UKIP. As any future UK Commissioner has to stand down as a MP. The Tories will be desperate to avoid giving UKIP any political momentum just months before the general election. A UKIP by-election victory in a Tory seat would cause a political earthquake amongst many Tory backbenchers and potentially make the Parliamentary party unmanageable.
Andrew Mitchell is a close ally of Cameron. Formerly the International Development Secretary, he was widely recognised by all parties as doing a good job. He was latterly the Conservative Chief Whip, a job normally only given to a very loyal MP. (The exception was during the Brown/Blair years). Cameron believes he owes Mitchell a debt of honour after he was hastily sacked as a cabinet Minister.
Mitchell has one very positive advantage over Lansley and Willetts, that being the location of his constituency and the size of his majority. Representing Sutton Coldfield, he had a majority of 17,005 at the last election in 2010. Furthermore, like Patrick Mercer’s Newark seat, it is not natural territory for UKIP, so a by-election this autumn would be relatively risk-free. It should be noted that Andrew Mitchell did made a good impression in the Development council meetings of the EU.
Andrew Lansley’s political career has stalled somewhat. He was moved on from being Secretary of State for Health, he remains in the Cabinet as Leader of the House of Commons; often seen as pre-retirement post. His piloting of the Conservative’s health reforms attracted a great deal of controversy, especially amongst health care professionals.
He has a majority of 7,838 (over the Lib Dems) in South Cambridge. With East Anglia being a hotbed of Farageism and the Lib Dem vote very flaky, this constituency is vulnerable to a UKIP surge if Farage was to stand.
Once seen as a Thatcherite rising star, the perception of David Willetts as a well-meaning, cerebral moderniser is still pertinent. He is, though, currently seen as a ‘yesterday’s man’ with declining influence in his party. He is Minister of State for Universities and not a member of Cabinet. He would ably fit the profile of being a negotiator, a concilliator and a strategist, but being a second rank Minister he now has a low profile. He has been quietly seen working the ‘wine and canape’ circuit in Brussels recently.
A by-election in his constituency of Havant in Hampshire would be contentious. Alongside Kent, Hampshire is a UKIP heartland. His majority of 12,160 could be at serious risk with the highly vulnerable Lib Dems in second place, Labour not a credible threat and with UKIP already having a considerable presence in the constituency
One problem can be foreseen if any of the three putative candidates were to be chosen; they would not be seen as obvious big-hitters in Brussels (with the possible exception of Mitchell). This does not mean that they cannot grow into their job and gain influence later. However, in the short-term the lack of political profile may be a drawback when the portfolios of the Commissioners are divided up.
There are some murmurings about Caroline Spelman, former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Although not a high profile politician on the international stage, her gender would be advantageous when Commission portfolios are decided. There is currently an unwritten protocol of positive discrimination for Commissioner posts. Spelman also has impressive language skills being fluent in both French and German.
Like Mitchell, her constituency of Meriden in the West Midlands is seemingly insulated against a UKIP boarding party. She has a sizeable majority of 16,253, with Labour second with 15,407 votes. Counting against her is the ‘nannygate affair’ and the fact she is presently not a minister. Spelman must be viewed as a rank outsider.
There has also been recent ‘chatter’ about William Hague. As UK Foreign secretary, he is undoubtedly seen as a big-hitter on the international stage. Highly intelligent and personable he would be a huge asset to Cameron if he were in Brussels. Having left UK politics (probably for good) he may be tempted to plough his own furrow rather than be Cameron’s cypher.
Hague is much more pragmatic than he appears and would be much more emollient with Commissioner colleagues than many expect. With a majority of 23,336 votes in the Yorkshire town of Richmond, the seat is impregnable from any UKIP assault.
A further advantage of Hague’s candidacy is the signal sent out to current UKIP supporters. The Conservative could argue that the nomination of Hague sends out a clear message that Cameron is serious about renegotiation and the 2017 referendum. Hague’s 2005 general election campaign key slogan ‘Last chance to save the pound’, still resonates with the type of voter UKIP view as their main target. As a result of this failed campaign Hague is still perceived as a hardline eurosceptic in the Tory shires.
In the 2005 election Hague was heavily dependent on Michael Ashcroft for financial support for the (almost bankrupted) party, it is believed that Hague was less keen to focus on the £/Euro than Ashcroft. The campaign’s emphasis on euroscepticism was more a reflection of Ashcroft’s priorities than Hague’s.
When Cameron won the Tory leadership, one of his few firm pledges was to leave the centre-right, pro-EU party group in the European parliament (EP), the European People’s party (EPP). Although as shadow foreign secretary, he was responsible for implementing the policy pledge, it was left to the shadow Europe minister Mark Francois to do nearly all of the negotiations.
Key to achieving their objectives was persuading enough MEPs from six other Member States to join a new group. A failure to establish a new pan-EU party group further right than the EPP would have left the Tories in the EP completely marginalised and bereft of generous funding from the EP. It was Francois who was trusted by Cameron to do the ‘heavy lifting’ in these complex negotiations.
One other aspect of a Hague candidacy is David Cameron’s legacy. If he fails to win an outright majority for the Conservative party in the 2015 general election he will be vulnerable to a coup d’etat from within the party. If he fails to be in Government at all, he will almost certainly be ‘defenestrated’. However, he will be able to take comfort that he has appointed a like-minded soul as European commissioner and their influence will last until 2019.
Clegg will get some form of sinecure as a reward for dogged loyalty in the service of the coalition government, but it looks like it will not be as a European Commissioner.
Tim McNamara is head of the Peercourt consultancy firm. He was previously political editor at the European Commission