All this merely proves, if proof were needed, that Tony Blair has a keen understanding of the powers of patronage. There is nothing remotely disreputable about this. British prime ministers have fewer institutional levers than most of those who elect them realise. The relentless deployment of not- unfriendly Tories in big jobs, such as Lord Wakeham's chairmanship of the Royal Commission on second-stage reform of the House of Lords, to relatively minor ones, such as the announcement in this week's Budget by Gordon Brown that Lord Alexander will be heading an enquiry into shipping tax, is precisely part of how formidably the Prime Minister has gathered up potentially oppositional figures into the seemingly ever-widening arc of support for his national project.
One of the appointments which the Prime Minister now has to ponder in the next few months is that of an EU commissioner to replace Sir Leon Brittan when his term of office expires at the end of the year. Not everyone agrees that he has to ponder it at all, since, as is normal, the Leader of the Opposition has already made his recommendation: that of Sir Alastair Goodlad, John Major's chief whip, whom William Hague rather painfully sacked from the Shadow Cabinet. (Convention dictates that one commissioner, in this case Neil Kinnock, should be of the governing party and the other from the opposition.)
Nor was Mr Hague's a frivolous proposal. Had Mr Hague followed his own instincts by suggesting a deep-dyed Eurosceptic, it would have been deliberate mischief-making. But Sir Alastair, part of the liberal, patrician wing of the Tory party, is a natural though unfanatical pro-European. He has a strong sense of the British interest. He combines decency with a certain humorous worldliness, which makes him impossible to dislike. Why, therefore, should there be any doubt about it?
First, because while convention dictates that the two commissioners should be from opposing parties, it does not require the leader of the opposition's recommendation to be followed. Indeed there is a list of precedents in which previous prime ministers did not do so. The decision by Jim Callaghan to appoint Christopher Tugendhat rather than John Davies, who was recommended by the then opposition leader Margaret Thatcher, and John Major's to give Bruce Millan another two years in Brussels, rather than accede to John Smith's recommendation of Neil Kinnock, are only two. And secondly, because there is another first-rate and, frankly, better-qualified candidate waiting in the wings.
Here an interest should be declared in passing. Mr Chris Patten is a non-executive director of Independent Newspapers (UK), which owns The Independent, but it would be hard to ignore his qualities if he were on the board of a deadly rival. The Prime Minister is already sufficiently seized of them to have put Mr Patten in charge of perhaps the most politically delicate of all of the enquiries established by this Government, that into the future of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
Mr Patten was certainly one of the brightest stars of the Tory Party in the Eighties. Had the electors of Bath not turfed him out in favour of a Liberal Democrat, he would probably have become foreign secretary when Douglas Hurd stood down. Instead he refused to take either a peerage, or an unceremonious reinsertion into the Commons by means of an enforced by-election, and became the last governor of Hong Kong, performing that difficult task with distinction under two Tory foreign secretaries and one Labour one.
He has thought long and seriously about Europe. It is difficult, in other words, to think of a senior Tory - with the possible exception of Kenneth Clarke, who isn't interested in becoming a commissioner - who is better qualified for an international job.
There has been talk in Brussels of Mr Patten getting the new post of executing and co-ordinating the EU's Foreign and Security Policy, and that's certainly possible. But unlike the commissionership, the foreign policy post is not in Mr Blair's gift; it's not certain that it will go to a Briton. It is part of the complex horse-trading among all the big EU countries. At present the main focus of discussion in Whitehall and Brussels is on the question of the commission presidency, for which Romano Prodi of Italy and Javier Solana of Spain are both likely candidates. If Mr Solana gets the presidency then Carlos Westendorp, another Spaniard, will not get the foreign policy job. And so on.
This is difficult for the Prime Minister. Sir Alastair was his parliamentary pair (under the reciprocal arrangement by which an MP allows his opponent to take the night off by not going through the division lobby), as intimate a relationship as an MP can have with an MP in the opposing party. Sir Alastair is also a friend of the Lord Chancellor's. It would not be easy to deprive him of a job Mr Hague no doubt partly intended to be compensation for losing his seat on the Shadow Cabinet. And finally, he is reputed to have played a helpful behind-the-scenes role in the negotiations that led to the historic compromise allowing 91 hereditary peers to retain their seats in the Lords.
But this isn't really the point. It is much more a question of how Britain is seen in Europe. If the British Government wants to maximise its influence in the EU - and it surely does - then it is important to have a big and upwardly mobile Tory figure in the Commission. Sir Leon, a figure of real authority in Brussels, has shown how important it is to have a pro-European Conservative with a high profile as a British commissioner. Nice as he is, Alastair Goodlad simply doesn't have that kind of profile or capacity to articulate the future direction of the EU.
Mr Patten, with an already high international reputation, and from the front rank of British politicians, undoubtedly does. If he doesn't get the foreign policy job, he surely has a better claim to the commissionership than any other Conservative.
The Prime Minister is no doubt sensible not to make a decision before he has to; part of the useful exercise of patronage is to keep the possible beneficiaries waiting. But while Mr Blair likes Mr Goodlad a lot, he is also a meritocrat who wants to be taken seriously in Europe. Two considerations which point inexorably towards the former governor of Hong Kong.Reuse content