It’s a measure of how much more difficult the EU issue has become for Cameron – particularly in terms of party management – that the process has been such a saga of speculation, tips and hints. The decision to bundle the announcement in with the reshuffle was presumably meant to normalise it, but instead created yet more rumours that it would go to a big beast.
Only a few weeks ago, in an interview with ConservativeHome, Lord Hill replied “non, non, non” when asked if he might be the next Commissioner – I doubt that he was lying, but instead suspect this is a sign of quite how much Downing Street has had to cast about, cajole and persuade to find anyone to take the job. As Hill himself said, they want to avoid a by-election, so he is a practical solution.
Practical, but not necessarily exciting. “Lord Who?” asked untold numbers of people when the name came out – which if nothing else serves as a reminder to those poring over every detail of the reshuffle that it’s possible to sit at the cabinet table and still have hardly anyone know who you are.
Given that, we have the first problem raised by the choice of Lord Hill. The Conservatives have, quite rightly, criticised the anonymity not just of Cathy Ashton but of the entire EU Commission – that’s a line which is harder to sustain now we’ve appoint someone just as unknown to the job.
It gets worse. The second half of the line criticising the Brussels establishment is that they are unelected – indeed, that many of them have never won an election in their lives. Just like, er, Lord Hill.
The British Commissioner, along with the Foreign Secretary, has a crucial job to do if the Prime Minister is to stand even a miniscule chance of being able to wave a renegotiation in the air and proclaim it a success. Lord Hill hasn’t made a specialism of euroscepticism in recent years beyond supporting the Government’s top lines as a minister in the Lords – does he have the punch to put across the scale of change which Cameron wants in Brussels?
Sharp readers will note the word “in recent years” in the previous paragraph – he was in John Major’s Downing Street at the time of Maastricht, so he does have knowledge of the EU, its negotiations and its Byzantine processes. However, how many eurosceptics do anything but shudder when the words “John Major’s Downing Street at the time of Maastricht” are mentioned?
All of which feeds into a wider mire in which Cameron may get bogged down. Eurosceptics are jittery – not just because we don’t believe a lot of the Government’s spin, but because all the main parties have a dreadful track record of weasel words, vanishing ambitions and grimy sell-outs. For everyone heartened that Ken Clarke is gone, or that we may be able to leave the ECHR now that Dominic Grieve is no longer Attorney General, there are several more disappointed by the defenestration of Owen Paterson or the non-appointment of Liam Fox. The presence of Major and Clarke on Hill’s CV as past employers will raise more than a few concerns.
Of course, it will raise more than concerns among our purple and yellow friends in UKIP. Expect a Farage barrage come the appointment of the EU Commission – who knows, he may even devise a put-down of the type he famously delivered to van Rompuy. On Twitter, Hill’s presumed place as a Bilderberger-EUSSR-LIBLABCON lizard agent will shortly enter the lexicon of every one of UKIP’s equivalent of the Cybernats.
Hill’s advocates – Iain Martin among them – reply that he’s a fixer, not a salesman or an ideologue. They point to his excellent work on the academy programmed at the Department of Education, and argue he will therefore be able to navigate the corridors and cafes of the Berlaymont with ease – it may even secure one of the big Commission gigs, like the Internal Market. This may well be true, but it will not alter the perceptions of those who need reassuring or persuading.
Ultimately, the success or failure of Lord Hill will rest on the performance of Philip Hammond at the FCO and Downing Street. They choose how to play the renegotiation, and what public signals to send to other EU leaders. Given the way the Foreign Office has sabotaged even the groundwork for a renegotation, Hammond has a job on his hands to turn things round – though he is undoubtedly more eurosceptic than his predecessor. I wonder how confident Hill feels about that turnaround being achieved.