For the first time since 1995, a serving Conservative Prime Minister will get to decide who will be the UK’s top Eurocrat. It’s a big decision, so I’d like to offer the Prime Minister some advice. Send Nick Clegg.
Yes, David, I know you will be under great pressure from your own backbenchers to send one of your own Eurosceptic ministers to fill the post (Conservative Home has already mooted Owen Paterson as a possible contender). But sending one of the Cabinet will force not only a reshuffle but also a by-election in a Conservative seat. It’s probably worth remembering that that a Conservative government has not successfully retained one of its own seats in a by-election since 1989 (when a 28-year old William Hague entered Parliament, incidentally).
You are under no obligation to appoint a Conservative at all. John Major appointed Neil Kinnock in 1995 and Tony Blair sent Chris Patten in 1999. And the UK has never sent a Lib Dem to the Commission, so it would be a nice gesture in the spirit of coalition politics.
It would also be a departure from the British tradition to send a qualified candidate. I think it is fair to say that the UK’s former EU Commissioners are a less than distinguished bunch. Leon Brittan quit the Cabinet in the biggest scandal of the Thatcher years, Neil Kinnock couldn’t win a general election for love or money, while Chris Patten won a general election for John Major but forgot to keep his own seat. Peter Mandelson was best known for having to quit the Cabinet twice in political scandals and the high regard he is held in nowadays stems more from his career after leaving Brussels than before. Who even remembers the great contribution to UK public life made by Arthur Cockfield, Stanley Davis, Ivor Richard, George Thomson or Bruce Millan. In fact, who remembers them full stop?
Lord Jenkins is probably the most senior British statesman that we have sent to the Commission (he was its President from 1976-81) and even he regarded it as a consolation prize for losing out on first the Labour leadership and then the post of Foreign Secretary.
No one can doubt Nick Clegg’s qualifications for the post. He completed a master’s degree at the College of Europe in Bruges, was an EU official in the 1990s and then adviser and speechwriter to a Commissioner before serving as an MEP from 1999 until 2004. If you cut him, he probably bleeds blue with yellow stars…
It would also be the kind thing to do. Poor old Nick is currently having a rough old time as Lib Dem leader, dealing with sex scandals that won’t go away, leading a party that is increasingly uncomfortable in the straight-jacket of coalition and staring into the abyss of potential electoral oblivion. It would just be awful if, after helping keep this government afloat, his only reward was to lose the leadership of his party and maybe even his seat. Far kinder to give him a few years on the EU gravy train – at least until the UK’s exit in 2017, after that in-out referendum.
It would also be the perfect catalyst to that long-awaited Coalition divorce. The whole business could be sorted out over the summer and both parties can start ‘differentiating’ themselves in earnest during Conference season.
Go on, Dave – send Clegg to Brussels. You’d be doing everyone a favour.