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The Prime Minister is looking for many qualities in Britain’s next EU Commissioner, but perhaps for one above all: loyalty to him. Whoever is appointed will be in place during the renegotiation which will follow David Cameron’s return to Downing Street next year, if that happens. Put aside for a moment the condition of loyalty to the EU and its project which comes with such posts. A well-disposed commissioner, who favours the vision of the Union set out in the Prime Minister’s Bloomberg speech, would be more than helpful.
No wonder, then, that the fickle finger of fate – or rather patronage – seems to be pointing to Andrew Lansley. (At one point recently, Ladbrokes suspended betting on him.) Lansley and Cameron go back a long way. The former was Director of the Conservative Research Department when the latter worked in it, and saw that the young man would go far – asking him jokingly for a job under a future Cameron Government. “I want to be the Governor General of Bermuda, and I would particularly like the shorts and the hat,” Lansley told his young charge. Now a more distinguished appointment looms.
Lansley is a decent man and an unlucky politician. His original health bill had a clarity and logic to it – though whether legislation was required to meet its ends is debatable, since some Primary Care Trusts were already folding themselves into commissioning groups. The Liberal Democrats tore it up and watered it down (which may be physically difficult but is legislatively doable). The pause in its proceedings was humiliating for him. A weakened Lansley was then shuffled off from health, a job he had prepared for since 2004, to be Leader of the Commons.
In other words, Lansley remains in place because Cameron knows he is to be relied upon and won’t cause trouble. These qualities alone can’t sustain Cabinet status indefinitely, and the Commons Leader has been duly tipped for the chop in the coming reshuffle. An EU Commissioner post would be an agreeable alternative to the backbenches, even if the climate in Brussels doesn’t favour shorts. (He is welcome to the hat.) But why should trust and friendship swing the appointment? Aren’t there more important qualifications for the post?
Rather a long time ago, Lansley was Norman Tebbit’s private secretary when he was a civil servant. He has thus touched the hem of the garment of Euro-scepticism. But he has no experience of how the pragmatometer-like wheels of the EU grind. One man who does is Daniel Hannan, now re-elected as an MEP and the top choice for the post of party members. But Hannan has other fish to fry – or flay. The second choice was John Redwood and the third Andrew Mitchell, who performed rather well in a competitive field for a man not previously identified with Euro-scepticism.
As Adrian Pepper argued on this site, Peter Lilley is a strong candidate for the post. But there is another at hand whose views are no less representative of MPs and activists, but who has first-hand knowledge of the way the EU institutions work. Step forward, Martin Callanan. The former MEP has been leader of the group of Conservative MEPs – and, more importantly, of the European Conservative and Reformists Group, set up to provide a centre-right, non-federalist alternative to the European People’s Party. After last week, Tory numbers may be down but the group’s strength is up.
All roads may not lead to Rome, but all considerations lead to Callanan. He was a driving force behind making the ECR group work. He knows how the Parliament and the Commission work. Downing Street and Conservative MPs know him. His Euro-sceptic views are long-standing, deeply-felt and real – as readers of his columns on this site will know. His centre of gravity on Britain’s membership is roughly the party’s centre of gravity. Yes, he has just lost a Euro-election. But he won three others. One of our present commissioners, bless her, has never stood for election at all.
A persistent backbench complaint is that Downing Street is a closed circle – staffed by a collection of chums. But as I write in the Daily Telegraph this morning, Cameron’s strained relationship with Conservative MPs has eased over the last year. This is partly because Number 10 generally, and Cameron personally, have taken a great deal of time and trouble to consult and listen more: there is more mutual trust than there was. It would be broadened and deepened were someone to be sent to Brussels whose views are the Party’s own. A last point: his appointment would avoid a by-election.