The announcement that Lord Hill will be nominated as the next European commissioner is indicative of the Janus-like confusion that currently reigns within the modern UK Conservative party. A relatively non-dogmatic person, one could easily hesitate to call him a politician, writes Tim McNamara.
Yet Hill’s rapid promotion speaks volumes more about Cameron’s fear of the UK Independence Party than it does about the UK’s long-term interests within the EU. Coupled with the new appointment of Philip Hammond as Foreign Secretary it also marks the onward rise of Euro-scepticism.
As ever Cameron’s penchant for short-term tactical advantage outweighs medium to long-term strategic planning. The nomination of Lord Hill puts to bed a particular dilemma that has worried the Tories for the past few months. The nomination of a sitting Member of Parliament as a prospective European commissioner would have almost certainly created a by-election for the vacant seat. This would have been a huge opportunity for UKIP to keep up their post-European parliament election momentum and given them a real chance of gaining a seat in the House of Commons for the first time.
Therefore, prospective UK Commissioners who currently serve as MPs, such as Andrew Lansley, David Willets, and Andrew Mitchell, have seen their political ambitions sacrificed on the altar of expediency.
Hill’s nomination is also indicative of the paucity of suitable candidates that would be a) willing to be an EU Commissioner; b) acceptable to the European Parliament and c) guaranteed a high profile portfolio by commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
Only William Hague and Theresa May could have easily passed muster on the second and third criteria, but both did not want the post: Hague, because he wants to take a step back from frontline politics, and May for the opposite reason: her leadership ambitions are still credible.
Cameron’s appointment of Philip Hammond as the successor to William Hague as the UK’s Foreign secretary, coupled with the nomination of Lord Hill, will ensure relationship between Hammond and Hill will be one of senior and junior rather than one of equals. Hill will be expected to closely follow the imperatives laid down by Cameron and Hammond rather than that of a being a EU Commissioner within the wider-EU interest.
Whilst Hill is no virulent Euro-sceptic, his future real boss, Hammond, is a hardliner on EU matters. He has recently indicated that if given the choice to remain in the EU as it is presently constructed he would vote to leave. Hammond has a well-earned reputation for mastering detail. Hill’s performance as European commissioner will be closely monitored by the UK Foreign Office.
Hill’s role in the commission will also be pivotal in the upcoming negotiations between the UK and the other member states on the UK’s reform agenda; he will be seen by Jean-Claude Juncker as the conduit to David Cameron in the lead-up to the UK’s general election in 2015. If Cameron remains as Prime Minster after May 2015, then Hill’s importance will continue.
This perception of Hill by the other member states as being a vital interlocutor will also ensure that the UK government will keep Hill firmly under its control. Although Hill is not a big-hitter, he is no Euro-sceptic. Whereas not a woman, he is no macho politician; although originating from what is now an overwhelmingly Euro-sceptic party, he is seen as a pragmatist. He should therefore easily survive the European parliament hearings that all commissioners will face.
Furthermore, if Juncker’s publicly stated emollient words over the UK’s position in the EU are to mean anything, then despite being male, white, low profile and originating from a party that is not in the mainstream of EU political life, it may well be that Lord Hill is given a high profile portfolio to look after. If Hill is given the commission equivalent of multilingualism then one can assume that the game is already up for Cameron’s reform agenda.
Euro-sceptics are clearly in the ascendency in the UK Conservative party, but Hill’s promotion is probably a defensible choice to outsiders. However this is more due to simple political calculation concerning electoral fortunes than any strategic planning. As ever, Cameron takes a tactical decision without considering the medium to long-term implications.
Cameron’s main problem with his party’s relationship with EU politics will continue to be his Euro MPs, rather than his backbenchers, who appear to continually dictate EU policy to him rather than the other way round.
Tim McNamara is head of the Peercourt consultancy firm. He was previously political editor at the European Commission.