Election rules don’t stop us nominating an EU Commissioner

by Nick Kent | 22.11.2019

Boris Johnson claims the “purdah” rules stop him nominating a member of the new European Commission. He is actually abusing the rules – which are designed to stop governments taking long-term decisions during elections unless delay would be “detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money”.

Today is the deadline for the government to respond to a European Commission letter threatening infringement proceedings if it fails to propose someone as our Commissioner. The Prime Minister has known there was an issue for months. Indeed, he told the Commons on July 25: “We will not nominate a Commissioner for the new Commission taking office on the first of December – under no circumstances”.  

The issue returned when Parliament passed a law requiring Johnson to ask the EU for an extension to UK membership. This was agreed by the other EU leaders on October 28 with a new Brexit deadline of January 31 2020. The Prime Minister knew that the delay meant he would need to make a nomination.

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    It is true that the Commons agreed to an early general election on October 29. It is also true that, during an election campaign, ministers are supposed to “observe discretion in initiating any action of a continuing or long term character” (Cabinet Office, General Election Guidance 2019, paragraph 3).

    However, the purdah period only started on November 6 when Parliament was dissolved. Despite the eight-day gap, Johnson sat on his hands. It wasn’t exactly a difficult decision. The UK already has a Commissioner, Julian King, who is not a member of any political party and has filled the role effectively since the 2016 referendum. He had remained in office the previous two times that Brexit was delayed. Why could he not do so again?

    Initially British officials briefed the media that the UK would “meet its legal obligation”. But the government later told the incoming Commission President that it couldn’t propose anybody until after the election because of the purdah rules.  

    But a glance at these rules shows that the Prime Minister isn’t just allowed to make the nomination; it is arguably his duty to do so. After all, public money will be wasted defending the EU’s infringement proceedings – and not having a British voice to help shape the new Commission’s work programme is against the national interest, as David Hannay argued earlier this month. If Johnson is really worried about propriety – which seems unlikely from the man who illegally tried to suspend Parliament – the rules say he can consult the opposition parties. (See Cabinet Office General Election Guidance, section H, paragraph 4).

    The Prime Minister’s decision is not about the national interest or public money. It is a fake row engineered to get him favourable headlines. He wants to portray himself as the tough guy standing up to Brussels. Given that the situation is entirely his own fault, that’s as pathetic as it is deceitful.

    The headline was updated on December 4

    Edited by Hugo Dixon

    Categories: Brexit, UK Politics