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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder