Can Cameron prevent Juncker snubbing next commissioner?

One reason for that embarrassing phone call becomes clear as Baroness Ashton prepares to step down

Column LAST UPDATED AT 10:19 ON Mon 30 Jun 2014

Lord Mandelson has urged David Cameron to bury his differences with Jean-Claude Juncker and be sure to appoint a first-rate new Commissioner to replace Britain's current representative, Cathy Ashton.

There are fears among Britain’s top diplomats that Juncker could rub Cameron’s nose in Friday's 26-2 defeat over his appointment as EU president by giving Britain a low-priority Commission portfolio when Ashton, the Labour baroness, steps down in the autumn.

She has been High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, in effect Europe's foreign secretary, one of the most-profile portfolios.

As the former British ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, tweeted: "Who advised Dave on Juncker, I wonder? So much capital spent on a hopeless cause when bigger fish to fry - eg job for new UK commissioner."

Britain has had a series of high-profile economic posts in the EU Commission – Mandelson himself was Trade Commissioner – but Juncker will have it in his power to hand Britain a low-key brief such as the digital agenda or regional policy.

That is one reason why Cameron had to swallow his pride and make one of the most embarrassing phone calls of his life yesterday when he telephoned Juncker to “congratulate” him on winning, despite having said publicly that his elevation to the European Commission presidency was "a bad day for Europe".

Although Mandelson acknowledged that Juncker was by no means the best choice, he told Radio 4's Today programme that Britain has less to fear from him than Cameron has been suggesting.

"He is not the green-eyed federalist monster that some would have us believe," said Mandy, who spent half an hour with Juncker in Berlin last week. "The PM was right to call him yesterday on the telephone and we should now set about working closely with him.

"I would give this advice to the Prime Minister: stop waving around this threat of a referendum as if it were some sort of pistol over everyone’s head.."

The former architect of New Labour added: ‘We have to make a start in nominating an absolutely first-rate British commissioner in Brussels… It has to be somebody who has real intelligence and effectiveness."

Whether the current front-runner for the job, former Tory Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, fits the bill is open to doubt. He is blamed for foisting radical NHS reforms on the coalition after the 2010 election and wrecking Cameron’s hopes of neutralising the NHS as an issue.

After Friday's defeat, Cameron metaphorically donned the blond wig, blue dress and handbag of Margaret Thatcher and compared his stand to her refusal to accept Jacques Delors’s federalist agenda, famously declaring in the Commons in October, 1990: "No! No! No!"

But the big difference is that Thatcher won. Dave lost. Now he’s got to make the best of it. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Camo says he can still "do business" with Juncker.

He needs to start by choosing the strongest possible Commissioner. Each member state has one only and Cameron needs to get it right. Many will be asking whether Lansley is the best he can do. · 

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There are only two sufficiently weighty Tories (assuming Hague will not take up the challenge) - Theresa May or Michael Gove. But perhaps the clever thing would be to send a Lib Dem to Brussels - either Vince Cable or Danny Alexander. The truth is Cameron can only score with this appointment if it is someone with real clout. By its nature that is a problem for a coalition - since the clout is all sibject to very personal factors, much more than party factors. We shall see. The way government is now structured round just a few really big beasts, Cameron does not have a lot of choice. But appointing a Lib Dem could be a useful coalitionist gesture which might come in handy - that being very likely the name of the game for quite a bit longer. And not wasting a talented Tory who has caught everybody's attention - even in a controversial way - makes political sense for the PM. So perhaps the choice is May or Cable.

Surely the ideal candidate is the Grocer hisself, Ted Heath? Doesn't matter that he is dead.

What about a certain K. Clarke, he's strong and it would certainly put the "cat amongst the proverbial pigeons" (or am I just being evil?)

I don't think the risk is so much that Juncker tries to rub Cameron's face in it when it comes to portfolio allocation. The bigger danger is that Cameron tries to show his contempt for the EU and nominates one of his pals - such as Andrew Langsley - rather than a top quality candidate who would bring real standing to the Commissionaire's role.