Is Cameron's choice of EU commissioner already jinxed?

Jul 16, 2014
The Mole

Lord Hill's links with a private lobbying firm could cost him a decent job in the Brussels Cabinet

Rob Stothard/Getty Images

David Cameron's hopes of securing an important role in Europe for his new EU commissioner, Lord Hill, could be dashed because of Hill's connections with a private lobbying firm, it has emerged.

Before commissioners are approved in their posts, they have to go through scrutiny by the European Parliament. The problem is that the 53-year-old former adviser to John Major has a substantial shareholding in Huntsworth, a listed public relations firm that bought out his PR lobbying company Quiller Consultants.

As The Guardian reports, the lobbying company's current clients include HSBC, the United Arab Emirates, British Land and Telefonica.

The potential conflict of interests could give the new EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker a legitimate excuse not to give Cameron's nominee a high-profile trade or economics portfolio in what is, in effect, the Brussels Cabinet. Eurocrats could even block his appointment altogether, though such a drastic step is thought to be unlikely.

If Britain does not get a high-profile portfolio for its new commissioner, it will be seen as slap in the face for Cameron. The departing Labour commissioner, Baroness Ashton, was effectively Europe’s Foreign Secretary and previous commissioners have held top trade jobs, including Lords Mandelson, Brittan and Kinnock.

They, of course, were all big hitters - which brings us to Lord Hill of Oareford's second problem: who is he?

The BBC's man in Brussels, Gavin Hewitt, made it clear on Radio 4's Today programme this morning that few in Brussels know his name and even if his association with Huntsworth proves surmountable, his low profile could deny him a strong portfolio.

"Quite a lot of people feel his chances have been diminished because he is not a big hitter," said Hewitt.

To be frank, even some in Westminster have been asking who he is since the news came through as part of yesterday's government reshuffle. He may be Leader of the Tories in the Lords, and have influence within the Conservative Party, but he's hardly a household name.

One reason for Cameron choosing Hill was that he is not an MP and so there's no need for a by-election - with all the attendant risks for the Tories - as would been the case if Andrew Lansley, the one-time favourite, had been picked as commissioner.

Another question they're asking in Brussels is why Cameron didn't send a woman, as Juncker had made clear he would favour?

It’s not as if Hill wanted the job. Only a month ago he told ConservativeHome: "First, I don't believe I'm going to be asked. Secondly, I like it here. I quite like it at home, in the British Isles. I don't think it's something that's going to arise…"

Of course, whatever portfolio Hill is given - assuming he passes muster – his other big responsibility in Brussels will be to negotiate the EU reforms Cameron is promising the British electorate in time for a 2017 in-out referendum.

The newly-promoted eurosceptic Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, told the Today programme that Cameron had chosen Hill for his skills as a quiet behind-the-scenes operator who might actually get somewhere with the reforms necessary if Cameron is going to be able to recommend a Stay In vote.

Incidentally, eyebrows were immediately raised in Westminster not so much by Fallon's denial that Cameron has appointed a 'Brexit' Cabinet - "It’s certainly a eurosceptic Cabinet, but the country is eurosceptic", said Fallon – but that it was the Defence Secretary answering the BBC's questions about Europe and not the newly appointed 'Minister for the Today Programme', Michael Gove.

Perhaps Gove was too busy reading 'How to be a Whip' or working out how to survive on £36,000 less a year – which, as The Independent helpfully points out this morning, is the difference in pay between Chief Whip (£98,740 per annum) and Education Secretary (£134,565). Ouch!

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