One of David Cameron’s great skills is his ability to separate the cares of office from the rest of his life. Samantha Cameron is never likely to say, to misquote Clarissa Eden, that ‘in the past few weeks, I have really felt that the terms of the European renegotiation were flowing through my drawing room’. This Christmas, however, the Prime Minister’s working hours are likely to be dominated by Europe. For in the new year he is expected to give a speech setting out how he wants to change the terms of Britain’s EU membership.
Several new European treaties will be needed in the next few years as eurozone governments seek ever closer integration. Cameron believes that, should he win the next election outright, he’ll be able to use these negotiations to refashion Britain’s relationship with the EU. The plan is to win the changes Britain needs to stay inside the union in exchange for not blocking closer integration between the core countries.
This, the Prime Minister’s friends say, is why Boris Johnson is wrong when he argues that Britain should oppose a eurozone fiscal union. The recent budget negotiations left Cameron convinced that when push comes to shove, the more liberal, northern European countries — including Germany — really do want Britain to stay in.
His plan is to offer the British electorate a choice between staying in on these new terms or leaving. It will be a considerable risk. To be confident of public support, him, he must secure a genuinely new form of membership. More difficult still, if not impossible, will be avoiding a split in the Tory party. If Cameron is to persuade his party to campaign in favour of EU membership, the new terms will have to be so different from the present ones as to be almost unrecognisable.
One person who will be pivotal in all of this will be Britain’s next European commissioner, due to take up the post in 2014. Cameron’s choice for this role will be one of the most important personnel decisions he takes as PM. He needs someone Eurosceptic enough for his party, yet savvy enough to play the Brussels game. A government source says that the chosen person will need to be ‘a Tory, a master of detail, a good negotiator, able to navigate a large and unwieldy institution and have a high boredom -threshold’.
Being a woman would also be an advantage, given the commission’s desire for gender balance in these positions. A female British commissioner would be far more likely to claim one of the vice-presidential slots. But so far there are no strong female Tory candidates. The Liberal Democrats are bound to push their MEP Sharon Bowles. But offering this post to a pro-European Lib Dem would be a red rag to Tory John Bulls.
One obvious candidate is Cameron’s longtime chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn. He knows Brussels well from his time working for the former EU commissioner Chris Patten, and would be taken seriously given his standing with the PM. But colleagues say that Llewellyn doesn’t want to go to Europe, that he will remain at No. 10 as long as Cameron is there.
Another name in the frame is Lord Green, the trade minister and the former chairman of HSBC. The government wants to secure one of the economic portfolios for Britain, so it makes sense to send someone from a business background. It is perhaps significant that, in the recent reshuffle, Green took on responsibility for European affairs at the Department of Business.
There are two strikes against Green, however. First, he might not be deemed sufficiently political. Second, the European parliament — which has to confirm the appointment — is not known for its affection for Anglo-Saxon bankers. It might well make trouble about the accusations of money-laundering at HSBC, over which the bank recently agreed a $1.92 billion settlement with US authorities.
Any shortlist for the role will include David Liddington. He is said to be keen on the job and, having been Europe minister for more than two years, he knows all the major figures on the continental stage. He is a master of detail and diplomacy, and is respected by the Prime Minister, who has repeatedly told colleagues that he regards Liddington as his most effective junior minister.
But three things count against him. Having not been a Cabinet minister, Liddington might find himself shunted off into one of the smaller portfolios. He also might not be Eurosceptic enough to reassure the Tory party — several senior Conservative backbenchers urged Cameron to move him from the Europe job in the last reshuffle and replace him with someone more in line with Tory parliamentary opinion.
Finally, there’s the by-election question. When I mentioned the prospect of Commissioner Liddington to one senior figure at the party’s headquarters, they went pale and responded: ‘A by-election in 2014 in high-speed rail country, with the MP going off to Brussels — it’s Ukip’s dream.’ When I pointed out that Liddington had a 12,000 majority, I was curtly informed that there was no such thing as a safe seat in a by-election.
One other minister whose name is often mentioned in connection with the job is Francis Maude. He is thoroughly, if quietly, Eurosceptic. He takes the view that a renegotiation can only work if Britain can threaten to walk away if it doesn’t get what it needs. But having previously been a Europe minister under Margaret Thatcher, he understands diplomacy, too. He is also one of the government’s more experienced negotiators. He led the talks with the trade unions over public sector pensions. Sending him to Brussels would be a strong signal about the way in which Cameron intends to conduct renegotiation.
Whether Britain’s EU membership can be rescued will be determined during the term of the next commissioner. If the rest of the EU is not prepared to allow this country to carve out a new form of membership, then a British exit will be increasingly likely.
Cameron is going to need all the help he can get in crafting a deal that is acceptable both to his electorate and to the other 26 member states. His choice of commissioner will be an early indication of how he plans to do that.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 December 2012