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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser