Cameron’s choice: five things to consider in picking the next UK Commission nominee

Next summer, David Cameron faces a tough decision: who to choose as the United Kingdom’s next nominee to the European Commission.

The opinion polls suggest that the choice will follow a defeat for the Conservatives – possibly into third place, behind the UK Independence Party (Ukip) and the Labour Party – in the European Parliament elections. In those circumstances, Tory MPs, many fearing for their jobs at the next general election in less than twelve months’ time, will want a sharp turn to the right.


Read our full profiles of the potential nominees for the Commission from the United Kingdom

Here’s five things Cameron will have to consider when picking a nominee:


European Council December 2012

1. Pick a moderate who’s acceptable at home and abroad

Cameron will have to make a nomination in agreement with the President-elect of the Commission. The PM will be under pressure from his party to put forward a Eurosceptic, while the new President-elect will need someone with a commitment to Europe who would be approved by the European Parliament. A political tug-of-war could follow.

This is not even taking into account any promises Cameron may have made to the Liberal Democrats during coalition talks between the parties back in 2010. Appeasing internal party or government unrest is always a key factor in choosing a nominee.

A nomination for Andrew Mitchell, the former Chief Whip and International Development Secretary would appease the Conservatives’ Eurosceptic wing, whereas a nomination for the Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, would anger backbench Tory MPs. (Incidentally, this will be the first College since British accession without a member from the British Labour Party.)

Malcolm Harbour, a current MEP and Chair of a leading parliamentary committee, is the leading outside option: he is seen as knowledgeable and capable, is cautiously pro-European and would probably be acceptable to the President-elect and MEPs. His long parliamentary experience could be seen as especially important by the incoming Commission President.


2. Pick a heavy-hitter to secure a big job

Cameron will want to secure an important portfolio for the UK, and probably an economic post. However, the Commission President-elect may be reluctant to give such a prominent position to a nominee from a country that may vote to leave the EU before the end of the Commission’s term – unless a really big player is proposed.

Traditionally, the UK has won important roles in the Commission: external relations, trade, internal market, competition and even the presidency in the 1970s. This comes despite few of the nominees having held very senior roles in the UK government (exceptions being Roy Jenkins, President of the Commission from 1977 to 1981, had been Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer; Leon Brittan had been Home Secretary and Trade and Industry Secretary; Peter Mandelson and Arthur Cockfield had also held the post of Trade and Industry Secretary.

The UK may well look to secure the internal market post again, for the first time since the 1980s. Harbour, as Chair of the Parliament’s Internal Market Committee, could realistically (with the support of Cameron and the Foreign Office) entertain aspirations to hold this post, and even be a Commission Vice-President.

Of the other main options, probably only Clegg – who is well-known in Brussels as a former MEP (and Commission official), and who is a committed pro-European and multilingual – could win a vice-presidential role.

Catherine Ashton at the EC

3. Avoid domestic disruption

Cameron will want to avoid a by-election, either by selecting someone who is not a current Member of Parliament or by choosing someone with a ‘safe’ seat in the House of Commons. This was certainly a major factor behind Gordon Brown’s choice of Catherine Ashton, a member of the unelected House of Lords, to replace Peter Mandelson in 2008.

Around half of the UK’s previous appointees were not MPs at the time of their appointment.

Mitchell has a safe seat so would not present a problem in that regard; nor would a nomination for Caroline Spelman, a multilingual former Environment Secretary, who also has a safe Conservative seat. Nick Clegg may lose his parliamentary seat in 2015 if the opinion polls are to be believed, so a Commission job could be a good escape route.

A nomination for Harbour, as a current MEP, would have no implications for majorities in Westminster, and would take the decision out of the frenzy of the ‘Westminster bubble’.


4. Consider the gender balance requirements 

The Commission President-elect is likely to want to improve the gender balance of his team. A woman may need to feature in Cameron’s plans – and he does not have many suitable candidates in this regard.

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is being positioned by some as a future Tory leader. While seeing off a rival is good political sport, May would be reluctant to go, and Cameron reluctant to lose a senior member of his team.

The gender question was a key consideration in the Ashton’s appointment as High Representative in 2009. Some commentators suggesting that the President-elect should even ask PMs for both a male and a female nominee, allowing more readily for the construction of a College taking account overall of gender, ability and politics.

Spelman fits the gender criterion but is not really a heavy-hitter – so Cameron may press hard for a big job rather than bending to any requirements for gender balance.

Hartlepool, United Kingdom, September 9, 2004 Nominee Commissioner Peter Mandelson Jan van de VEl©EC-CE5. Make amends

While sending someone to Brussels can be a ‘punishment’ or a way to get rid of a rival, it also makes for a good ‘making-up’ gift: righting a wrong and thereby averting a political threat.

Peter Mandelson’s appointment came after his swift second resignation from government in 2001 following an accusation of wrongdoing that was subsequently found to be false.

A nomination for Mitchell would be an appropriate level of reward to a cabinet minister who was forced to resign over a row with a police officer (after which the police allegedly fabricated evidence). However, Mitchell may have overplayed his hand a little, dropping too many hints that Cameron has a role waiting for him.


Other options are available too: Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland Secretary, is a former MEP in a safe seat. Kenneth Clarke, a former Chancellor and Home Secretary, is a big-hitter but probably too pro-European for many Tories. Malcolm Rifkind, a former Foreign Secretary, combines moderate Euroscepticism with gravitas, and holds one of the safest Conservative seats in the country.

Martin Callanan, who currently leads the European Conservatives and Reformists Group in the European Parliament, is another outsider. His seat is under threat, and would tick the boxes of being a Eurosceptic and someone who should pass through the hearing without difficulty.

We’ve made our shortlist of likely contenders – who would be on yours? Let us know your thoughts in the comments box below.