Who will fill the coming vacancies?
News stories this week suggest that there are two upcoming vacancies for the underemployed global statesman: Managing Director of the IMF and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn is facing serious accusations of sexual assault in New York, making likely his departure from the IMF as likely as if he had filed for the Socialist candidacy for the French Presidency. Baroness Ashton, on the other hand, is merely suffering from the backbiting of European politics, with snide and largely anonymous complaints about her competance and impact. This is not necessarily fatal, but given how surprising her 2009 appointment was (did I mention I tipped her at 50/1…?) she has struggled to overcome the perception that she is out of her depth.
The press have oft reported that Gordon Brown would like the IMF gig (he has been touring the international lecture circuit making important friends), and rarely fail to report that PM Cameron is loathe to support that request. But whereas the IMF is not in Cameron’s gift (nor indeed subject to his veto), the appointment of the UK Commissioner is the responsibility of Number 10, and the PM also has voting rights in the European Council that determines who should hold the job of High Representative.
There are few British candidates who might be authentic possibilities for the two jobs (IMF and EU Commissioner/High Rep). Having held one of the Great Offices of State or been a European Commissioner would be a basic criterion, I would suggest, along with a reputation for economic and/or foreign policy excellence, and an international reputation. Excluding Cameron and Osborne, of those still truly active in frontline politics (or young enough to be), that would suggest very few names:
Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Chris Patten, David Miliband, Ken Clarke, Alistair Darling, Jack Straw, William Hague, Nick Clegg. Of these, who should Cameron consider supporting?
From David Cameron’s perspective, having Gordon Brown on the international stage would be an unconscienceable headache – someone far better placed to attack Conservative economic policy from a non-partisan platform, and causing conflict on the international stage.
Tony Blair hasn’t the economic pedigree for the IMF job, but his fascination with the Middle East would suggest he might be better suited to the EU job, although his Atlanticism would hinder his election (and his pride might not allow him to take a job that was not the Presidency).
Chris Patten has just taken on a role at the BBC, but otherwise would have been a strong candidate to replace Ashton I think. There aren’t many Europhile Tories who would take the job at the Commission, and Patten’s experience of dealing with China whilst Governor of Hong Kong would have made him ideal for the role of High Representative.
The only other great Tory Europhile, Ken Clarke, is still in the Cabinet as Lord Chancellor (back to his roots as a QC), but his previous time as Chancellor of the Exchequer and his international business links would make him a strong candidate for an international role. I doubt he has the foreign policy experience required for High Representative, but should that job go to another commissioner, I could see him retiring for a swan song at the Commission in another role (such as Trade).
Peter Mandelson was my not-quite-as-dark-as-Ashton horse for the High Representative job last time, and I still can’t quite believe (and nor can he, if I read his autobiography correctly) that he lost out to anyone but David Miliband. He would be, I think, perfect for the role, having been EU Commissioner for Trade. In fact, I suspect he could handle the IMF job, although I think he would be loathe to seem to be disloyal to Brown even now. There is no-one from the UK better suited to the EU Commission, and he is underutilised in politics at the moment – Cameron could never give him a UK appointment for political reasons, but this would make sense.
Alistair Darling and Jack Straw are included largely out of completeness (as former Chancellor and former Foreign Secretary). I don’t have any reason to believe they want or would be offered roles at the EU Commission or the IMF. The idea of William Hague as EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs made me laugh, so I thought I’d share it.
Nick Clegg is a more interesting idea. He is multi-lingual, a former MEP, pro-European, and as Deputy Prime Minister has the pedigree to be a Vice President of the Commission. I think he would be perfectly suited to Brussels, should he find himself knifed by his own party, or should Cameron need a consolation prize and mark of gratitude if he decides to dissolve the Coalition and call a General Election.
David Miliband is the most political name on this list though. There are still plenty of Blairites (if that term still means anything, or if indeed it ever did) in the Labour Party who despair of his brother as leader. David is more ‘Princes in the Tower’ than ‘King over the Water’, but Cameron’s strategic aim of keeping Ed Miliband in position at all costs could be frustrated if David Miliband decides he has not given up on leadership of his party. One way to both sure up Ed Miliband as leader would be to remove David Miliband from Parliament by making him the UK’s Commissioner, and possibly High Representative. Of course, for the bonus prize of irritating Gordon Brown, Cameron should try and manoeuvre DM into the IMF job, but I suspect he lacks the economic policy chops for that.
Of course it is possible, if not likely, that the IMF job and the post of High Representative will not go to a Briton at all, leaving just the position of EU Commissioner from the UK when the Commission expires. But if Cameron is looking for extra spaces on the chess board, he could do worse than having some fun with the two big jobs that are (probably) coming up.