Saturday, 21 November 2009


Talk about being in the right place at the right time!

Peter Mandelson, the grandson of a former Labour Foreign Secretary, made two attempts at being a Cabinet Minister in his own right. Both occasions ended badly, with resignations in disgrace following scandals. He had, however, been a major architect of Tony Blair’s three successive election victories, having proved far more effective at running election campaigns than at building his own career. So when Blair appointed him a British Commissioner to the European Union, it felt a bit as though he was being awarded a consolation prize.

Not a bad consolation, by the way. The salary of a Commissioner is not far short of quarter of a million Euros a year. That would certainly console me for quite a lot of disappointment. But perhaps I’m being too mercenary in outlook and don’t share the selfless spirit of dedication and commitment to principle of most failed politicians.

Talking about failed politicians takes us seamlessly to the subject of Gordon Brown, who swiftly squandered the useful poll lead he’d enjoyed when he first became Prime Minister. He had to face up to the fact that he was going to need a touch of the kind of magic he had shown he couldn’t generate himself, if he was to have any hope of winning an election of his own. Now Mandelson had that kind of magic. Unfortunately, though Mandelson had initially been close to Brown, he had later on thrown in his lot with Brown’s colleague but rival Blair. It must have hurt Brown to have to turn to him for help, but, hey, any port in a storm. Brown bit the bullet and summoned Mandelson back from Brussels.

Incidentally, Mandelson’s salary as a Cabinet Mister is about 160,000 Euros. So, if it’s true that his original European appointment was a compensation for his British disappointment, it would seem that the quantitative, indeed financial, measure of the demoralising effect of losing a Cabinet position is some 90,000 Euros a year.

The recall to London created a gap for a British commissioner to fill the last year or so of Mandelson’s term. Fortunately, there was a candidate available. Never elected to any national post, and only in politics since 1999, Catherine Ashton been appointed to the House of Lords and had held a number of junior minister posts. In her last role she had ensured the House approved the Lisbon Treaty. She might have been obscure but she was loyal, competent and, through her work on the Treaty, familiar with European Union matters. She stepped in to replace Mandelson.

Fast forward a year. As a result of the ratification of the Treaty, the EU is looking for a President and a Foreign Minister (or as we prefer to call it in Eurospeak, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy). We think Blair ought to have the top post, because he’s a major figure on the international stage, a ‘traffic stopper’ – the kind of person who causes the police to hold up cars on his route when he turns up on an official trip somewhere. He’s also British, which we like a lot in Britain, because though we’re not keen on Europe, we’re keen on Europe showing Britain respect by appointing its celebrities to senior positions.

Of course, there are a few tiny problems with Blair. There are those killjoys who feel that a man who really ought to be on trial for war crimes shouldn’t be appointed to positions of high honour. Then there are the leaders of the individual European States who would rather that no-one in a position theoretically superior to their own stop more traffic than they do. Plus they’re mostly from parties of the centre-right – with the exception of Berlusconi who has little to do with the centre – or with getting anything much right, come to that – so they're not going to appoint anyone from the centre-left, and there are still a few who think Blair can be regarded as having some connection with the left.

So Blair gets overlooked. And some obscure character from Belgium gets the job (OK, he’s the Prime Minister, but ‘Belgium’, ‘Prime Minister’ and ‘obscure’ are words that seem somehow to belong together).

So no Brit for President. The others feel bad. The Brits need to have their wounded feelings salved. Specially in a week when the French have robbed the Irish, who are practically British, of a place in the Football World Cup Finals through a thoroughly dastardly hand ball. What can we do to smooth their ruffled feathers?

There’s an easy solution. After all, if the centre-right got the Presidency, the centre-left can have the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. So – hey – how about appointing a Brit from the centre-left? A good plan. BUT just don’t forget we don’t want any traffic stoppers.

So what we need is an obscure Brit appointed by the present centre-left government. Need to get a move on, by the way – the other lot will be in next year.

Who do we have who could fit the bill? I know – isn’t there that lady in the Trade Commissioner position?

So good old Cathy got the job.

Talk about serendipity! There she was, in the right place at the right time.

I bet you one thing, though: she’ll turn out a hell of a sight better than most other potential candidates. And since I’d like to see the EU do well and, if I’m really quite honest about it, I wouldn’t be at all sorry to see a Brit contributing to the process, I’ll raise a glass to that.

In fact I’m going to stop writing and go and get that glass right now. And just say, good luck Cathy – make us proud!

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