Who will the UK Prime Minister now nominate as the next European Commissioner? The outcome of the UK’s European Parliament elections has produced a very mixed picture for the Conservative (Tory) leader, David Cameron. It has also made his decision that much harder, writes Tim McNamara.
Earlier this month, I wrote an article for policyreview.eu postulating that Cameron’s choices were limited somewhat by the the threat of a UKIP victory in a by-election caused by a Minister being appointed as the next UK Commissioner.
UKIP’s impressive performance in the European Parliament elections must have concentrated the PM’s mind even further. Previously the runners and riders were David Willets, Andrew Lansley and Andrew Mitchell. Caroline Spelman had her advocates and William Hague was thought by a few intelligent Conservatives to be the best candidate.
The highly influential (in Tory circles) website Conservative Home, owned by Lord Ashcroft and edited by ex-MP and former Daily Telegraph journalist, Paul Goodman is now pushing for Martin Callanan to be the nominee as European Commissioner. Callanan, a renowned Euro-sceptic lost his European parliamentary seat in the North East to UKIP on Sunday (25 May). Goodman’s main point about a Callanan candidacy is that he represents the mainstream thinking of the Tory party in England.
Callanan, has several advantages as a candidate, but he also has drawback’s from the PM’s point of view. Appointing Callanan would avoid the need for a by-election, he is a popular figure on the backbenches in Westminster (albeit most of which are trenchant Euro-sceptics). As a former leader of the Tories group in the EP (The European Conservatives and Reformists) he has experience of the European Union’s institutions and has strong links with other Euro-sceptics across Europe.
The major problem is that he is an ardent Euro-sceptic, which is a position at odds with the PM’s over the future of the UK’s role in the EU. Can Cameron trust him to negotiate directly on his behalf or would he follow his own agenda? Tory Euro-sceptic MPs in Westminster see Callanan as an ally in the campaign to get the UK out of the EU.
There is no evidence whatsoever, that he supports the prime minister’s position on remaining in a ‘reformed’ EU. Alongside the leading Tory Euro-sceptic in the EP, Daniel Hannan both have acted more like UKIP members than mainstream Tories. It’s still highly unlikely that Callanan could be nominated by Cameron, but a significant element of his party wishes it to be so.
The main problem is that other candidates stars are slipping somewhat after Sunday’s result.
The primary consideration in the prime minister’s thought process will be to avoid a by-election which could give UKIP political momentum in a Conservative-held seat that would carry it through to the general election in less than twelve months time. Although UKIP took votes from Labour in the EP election, If UKIP were to win seats in Westminster, it looks like they would win more from the Tories than Labour.
The Westminster by-election in Newark may be a pointer to the future. But, Roger Helmer’s candidacy for UKIP could actually muddy the water. If Helmer wins for UKIP, it bodes very ill for Cameron and his party. The last thing the party would want is another by-election that UKIP could win in a few months time. If Helmer loses, even by a significant amount, his eccentricity and forthrightness may well mask the appeal of UKIP.
Drilling down into the UK European Parliament election results from the regional level to the Borough Council level (courtesy of the Electoral Commission) reveals some very worrying statistics for Cameron.
It appears that David Willet’s prospects are now close to zero after taking into account the above, in the Parliament election. The votes for UKIP and the Tories in Willet’s UK Parliamentary constituency of Havant, were that Willet’s local party won 9.416 votes to UKIP’s 11,852.
Caroline Spelman’s chances appear now to be even more remote also. In the Solihull Council region, which contains her Meriden constituency (making up 50% of the Council’s area) the Tories were outpolled by UKIP by 17,590 votes to 16,823.
Andrew Mitchell’s prospects are also somewhat dimmer. His Sutton Coldfield constituency made up 20% of the Birmingham region in the EP poll. The results for Birmingham revealed 39,329 Tory votes and 52,063 UKIP votes. Local tally sheets may differ somewhat for Mitchell’s actual constituency, but it is likely that UKIP had a majority in Sutton Coldfield.
Only Lansley and Hague were able to claim a Tory victory. Lansley’s South Cambridgeshire seat returned 15,394 Tory votes to 11,464 UKIP votes. Hague’s seat produced a 60-40 split in favour of the Tories. Yet these are not comfortable results for Cameron’s Tories.
Lansley only has a majority of 7,838 in his parliamentary constituency over the Liberal Democrats with the rest nowhere. However the 20,157 Lib Dem votes are inevitably flaky and post-election this cannot be considered as an ultra-safe seat in a by-election. Because of Hague’s incumbency in his seat of Richmond and his majority of 23,336, this seems to be the best option for a by-election if one becomes necessary.
There may a further hurdle for a UK Commissioner nominee to navigate. The MEPs have to individually approve all Commissioner appointments by simple majority voting. An emboldened Parliament with new powers will inevitably flex their muscles by vetoing at least one nominee. It may well alight on a UK Commissioner with Euro-sceptic views as a sacrificial lamb.
No doubt, no decision will be firmed up after the day of the Newark by-election on June 5th. Hague or Lansley still look like the likeliest candidates from a logical perspective.
Could Cameron be coerced to confirm Callanan’s Commissioner candidacy?
Tim McNamara is head of the Peercourt consultancy firm. He was previously political editor at the European Commission.