Jonathan Hill: Grey eminence who has made Brussels see red

Profile: A charming, low-profile ex-lobbyist, the Tory peer has been ferociously criticised since his appointment to a top EU job

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The Independent Online

No one in modern politics has risen without trace quite like Baron Hill of Oareford.

In Brussels, they tell the story that when Jean-Claude Juncker, President Elect of the European Commission, heard from Downing Street that David Cameron was nominating a certain Lord Hill to be the UK’s next EU commissioner, his staff had to use Wikipedia to find out who he was.

Yet this little-known Tory peer is in line to become one of the most powerful officials in Brussels, holding the crucial post of Commissioner for financial services, financial stability and for the new commission’s pet project, the creation of a Capital Markets Union that would be an alternative to the banks for European companies needing finance. The idea that this post should go to a Briton with close links to the City of London caused so much consternation in the European Parliament that Lord Hill was subjected to three hours of cross examination by MEPs last Wednesday, and has been called back for more in the coming week.

At the end of those three hours, the MEPs still complained that they did not really know what made him tick. He was relaxed, disarming, and quick off the mark with jokes and retorts. He evidently enjoys classic works of literature. He told a story about being interrupted on a train while immersed in a Joseph Conrad novel. He mentioned Molière, which will not have harmed his standing with French MEPs.

What his cross-examiners were unable to discover was whether there was fire in the belly beneath the charm and ready wit, or how exactly he proposed to go about his new responsibilities. The scathing verdict of the Belgian Green MEP Philippe Lamberts, speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, was that Lord Hill “showed no grasp of the issues, and there was wide agreement in the economic and monetary affairs committee that, while he is a charming person, he has no knowledge of the matters”.

In Britain, Jonathan Hill is best known to those who have heard of him at all as the minister who tried but failed to resign. The story goes that towards the end of a long difficult day in September 2012, as David Cameron struggled through a ministerial reshuffle that involved sacking ministers who resented being sacked, he slipped quietly into the Prime Minister’s room to say that he would like to go too. He was tired of the long hours he had to spend getting education bills through the House of Lords, and could earn more money with less grief in the private sector.

But the Prime Minister was under pressure; he was late for a photo opportunity; he did  not take in what Lord Hill was trying to say, and bustled out of the room saying “carry on the good work” – leaving the bemused peer with no choice but to stay in post. Lord Hill’s version of that conversation is rather different from the one embedded in Westminster mythology.

He told Politics magazine: “The Prime Minister behaved, as you would expect, totally properly. We had a totally polite and courteous conversation where I said ‘Is there something else you want me to do? Would you like to have this job for someone else? What do you want me to do?’ And he said would I carry on, which I did.” Only four months later, in January 2013, he slipped into the Cabinet in place of Lord Strathclyde, the long-serving Conservative leader in the Lords, who resigned because he was fed up with the endless negotiating it took to get legislation through the upper house.

The most memorable moment of his 18 months in that job was when he was asked in an interview with the ConservativeHome website whether he was a candidate for the post of European Commissioner. “Non, non, non,” he replied emphatically. “First, I don’t believe I’m going to be asked.”

But then the call came, and again Lord Hill dutifully agreed to do as Cameron asked, like a man who just cannot resist the lure of politics, much as he might try to get away.

He first went into politics at the age of 25 as a researcher at Conservative Central office, after a short spell with the investment firm RIT & Northern and the publisher Hamish Hamilton. Then Ken Clarke took him on as a special adviser, first at the Department of Employment, later at Trade and Industry, then at Health.

He left to join the PR firm, Lowe Bell, in  1989, but after the fall of Margaret Thatcher felt a yearning to be back in the fray. He wrote to the new Prime Minister offering his services, and was given a job in the Downing Street policy unit, soon afterwards becoming John Major’s political secretary. One visitor to Downing Street in those days remembered Hill as “like an office boy – a very efficient office boy. He looked very young and was very keen and wide-eyed.” He was actually in his  early thirties.

He worked for Major until 1994, observing him on the stomp during the 1992 election, then went back to Lowe Bell. Even out of fulltime politics, he proved useful during the biggest crisis of Major’s career, when he resigned in July 1995 to flush out his enemies in the Tory party by daring them to stand against him in a leadership challenge. John Redwood took up the challenge, while Michael Portillo, then the darling of the right, set up a campaign headquarters with ample telephone lines in case the contest went to a second round.

John Major was predictably asked about those telephone lines at Prime Minister’s Questions. It was Hill who supplied him with a witty reply which raised morale among the Prime Minister’s battered supporters. Major said:  “The speed at which these matters can be done is a tribute to privatisation.”

In 1998, Hill co-founded the lobbying company, Quiller Consultants, which was sold to the international PR group Huntsworth in autumn 2006 for £5.9m. He sold his £375,000 stake in Huntsworth two months ago to avoid a conflict of interest.

From Cameron’s point of view, he was  the optimum choice for Commissioner:  someone who combined business knowledge with political experience, with the added advantage of not being an MP, so his appointment would not trigger a by-election which the Conservatives might lose. Relations between Cameron and Juncker had got off to a notoriously bad start, with the Prime  Minister being outvoted 26-2 when he tried to block Juncker’s appointment. Handing a crucial portfolio to Cameron’s nominee was Juncker’s peace offering – and no matter  how put out MEPs might be, it is highly unlikely that they will overrule the President’s decision.

 Generally, all those who have encountered Lord Hill say he is easy to work with. He was certainly popular with civil servants during his spell as an education minister.

Lord Hill may be known as “Lord Who”, but his emollient personality and quick mind may yet make the right man in the right place.