Will Cameron appoint a technocrat as Britain's next EU commissioner?

His party wants a eurosceptic but the PM may decide that he needs a business figure with a record of constructive engagement with Brussels.

One year ago this week, David Cameron promised to renegotiate the UK's role in the EU and hold an in/out referendum by 2017. It was an attempt by a weak Prime Minister to close down the EU debate and head off a backbench revolt and the UKIP insurgency. It has not worked. In the last 12 months he has talked about little else and viewed key political debates on welfare, immigration and jobs through the prism of EU membership.

This year things could get a lot worse. In May, the European Parliament election could see the Tories come third, behind Labour and UKIP, for the first time ever in a national contest. More important is the choice of the UK's next EU commissioner in October. The uninspiring names of fired cabinet ministers such as Andrew Mitchell and Michael Moore have been floated, although the long-held Tory hope that Nick Clegg would slope off to Brussels looks dead.

The lack of obvious candidates leaves a more intriguing possibility. Cameron has written to industry and business leaders to ask whether the next commissioner should be a non-political figure. The choice is politically toxic. Any candidate would need to bridge the huge chasm between the coalition parties' views on Europe. No eurosceptic could effectively fight Britain's corner in Brussels but anyone seen as pro-EU would be fiercely opposed by large sections of the Conservative Party.

The next commissioner will be Cameron's key EU cheerleader with the unenviable task of achieving unprecedented UK-led reforms. In 2009, Britain's choice, Labour peer Cathy Ashton, was handed the foreign policy brief in what is now seen as a major error. Michel Barnier, the French-born commissioner for internal markets, has wielded by far the most power in the last five years. Ashton's role has been far more limited.

Now the UK is seen as an outlier on financial services - it was outvoted 26-to-1 on introducing a bankers' bonus cap - the chance of a Brit succeeding Barnier to the post is remote. This leaves the trade and competition briefs as the two key roles for the UK reform agenda. Employing someone with expertise could boost the chances of taking these positions.

So, who should get the job? Names in the frame include the CBI director general John Cridland. He runs a pro-European, pro-business lobby organisation but has also tussled with EU regulations and its tortuous policy-making process. Leaders of financial service trade bodies also have a pedigree of battling EU rules and winning key victories for the UK and the sector. 

Liberal Democrat MEP Sharon Bowles is a Brussels veteran and international expert on financial services regulation. In her role as chair of the powerful Economic and Monetary Affairs committee no one has seen more EU horse-trading. She likes the idea of a technocrat, telling me: "It's an interesting idea. If you put forward good business credentials there is a good chance the new President of the Commission will look at the talent and put them in the best position.

"I always thought Cameron would look among his own kind. There are still people supportive of the Conservatives even if they are not politicians. I don't know how someone who has never been involved in politics will find it because it is quite political. However, it is an interestingly refreshing thought."

Samuel Dale is politics reporter at Money Marketing

David Cameron speaks during a press conference at the end of an EU Council meeting on October 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.