It now looks almost certain that Andrew Mitchell will be our next EU Commissioner in 2014. The job was not advertised and the backroom selection process remains a mystery. In the wake of the Plebgate row, though, we can make an educated guess as to why, according to the FT, Downing Street has asked Mitchell ‘to consider’ the offer.
This would be no ordinary consolation prize for Mitchell. Downing Street has big hopes for Mitchell in the role. Senior Whitehall sources indicate that Britain will be pushing hard for a big economic portfolio when the new commission is appointed next year. The aim is to make the case for financial reform of the EU, resist protectionism and safeguard the competitiveness of the City of London. There are mooted transaction taxes, bonus caps, new regulations and envious Parisians and Frankfurters with which to contend; control of an economic portfolio is seen as vital to protect British interests.
Downing Street is determined not to be fobbed off with a bogus job, such as the toothless High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs. Quite aside from her brief, the general view is that Cathy Ashton will not go down in the history books as our finest export. Ashton’s hurried appointment is blamed on the Brown government being caught off-guard by Tony Blair’s sudden withdrawal from the unofficial race to be EU President five years ago. Downing Street, therefore, is taking care to make a strong financial pitch, with Mitchell at its centre.
There are, however, doubts over Mitchell’s suitability. You wonder how ‘Thrasher’ Mitchell would get on in Brussels’ quiet corridors. Part of the reason Mitchell’s career as chief whip came to such a sudden halt was that too many of his colleagues, who knew Mitchell well, easily believed the allegations, so few came out to bat for him when the going got tough. You would imagine that the PM’s ambitious European plans will need a charmer rather than a bruiser to see them through. This, of course, assumes that Mitchell would be given an economic brief in the first place. His experience as international development secretary, to say nothing of his belief in the importance of aid, makes him a natural fit for the EU’s development brief. Brussels may try to shunt him off there, away from the economic action. And there is the domestic dimension: Mitchell was a Maastricht whip. His appointment may incense the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party; and, as Isabel revealed the other day, the Eurosceptics are already mutinous.
A plum job for Mitchell at the EU commission may be fair compensation for Downing Street’s Plebgate panicking. But it is not without risk, and the stakes are very high for Britain.