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July 15, 2014 12:27 pm
Jonathan Hill, a former political adviser and lobbyist, has been nominated by David Cameron to be Britain’s next European commissioner, with the hope that he will be given a top economic portfolio.
The choice of Lord Hill, Leader of the House of Lords, will come as a surprise to those who hoped Mr Cameron would send a political heavyweight to Brussels to serve in Jean-Claude Juncker’s new commission.
Mr Juncker may also be disappointed with the reshuffle selection; he told Mr Cameron that Britain would be more likely to be awarded a top post in the EU executive if he nominated a woman.
But Lord Hill is trusted by Mr Cameron and is regarded as a likeable and capable figure with a good eye for detail and an understanding of business.
In Brussels, the nomination was met with much head-scratching as Lord Hill was not among the half-dozen names circulating in EU circles beforehand. British officials are selling him as a cross-party consensus builder who can reach out to Mr Juncker.
British officials note that Lord Hill needs to build coalitions in the Lords to move legislation because the Conservatives don’t have a majority there, a skill they think will serve him well in Brussels, where David Cameron will need a “new settlement” ahead of his planned 2017 referendum on EU membership.
Last month when asked if he would consent to the idea of becoming Britain’s next commissioner – replacing EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton – he told the ConservativeHome website: “Non, non, non.” He added: “I quite like it at home, in the British Isles.”
Other candidates including William Hague, former foreign secretary, and Lord Howard, former Tory leader were also considered for the post, but are understood to have declined.
Two former financial journalists, Patience Wheatcroft and Sarah Hogg, were also considered by Mr Cameron but were deemed not to have the political skills needed to work in Brussels.
Meanwhile, Mr Cameron decided to exclude his MPs from the search – including Andrew Lansley, former Leader of the House of Commons – because he did not want to create a parliamentary by-election.
Although he may be seen as having won the nomination by default, Mr Cameron’s aides said Lord Hill had “spent half his career in business” and had held economic roles at key British economic ministries.
He began his career in the Conservative research department in the 1980s and worked as political secretary to John Major, former Conservative prime minister, in the 1990s during the Tory eurosceptic rebellion over the Maastricht treaty.
Lord Hill worked as a consultant at Bell Pottinger, the lobbying company and became a founding director of Quiller Consultants in 1998, the PR and lobbying firm that was bought by Huntsworth in 2006 for £6m.
Critics say that Lord Hill has risen without trace, but his attempt to quit the government early in the parliament also passed unnoticed.
He made headlines in 2012 when he allegedly tried to resign as an education minister, only for Mr Cameron not to notice. At that point, as a junior education minister, his requests for a meeting with Cameron were repeatedly cancelled. When they finally met, the prime minister failed to listen to his plea to step down, saying: “carry on the good work”.
Later he was appointed to leader of the House of Lords despite still holding shares in Huntsworth.
In one recent interview with PoliticsHome magazine he said: “I am not very good at thinking long term.”
Downing Street’s spokesman said: “His suitability has been evidenced for some time. He is eminently suitable.”
The European parliament will hold confirmation hearings with Lord Hill that may focus on his relevant experience and his past career as a lobbyist.
Additional reporting by Jim Pickard
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