I am delighted to hear that Baroness Cathy Ashton is to be the new EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs. Typically, there has been some sniping from Tory Euro-phobes like Timothy Kirkhope MEP, demonstrating yet again that the Conservative Party have difficulty understanding what the term “national interest” means in the context of the European Union.
Why is this good news?
Firstly, it is recognition of the hugely impressive work she has put in as EU Trade Commissioner – following on the similarly impressive role played by her predecessor, Lord Peter Mandelson.
Secondly, the new role is going to be pivotal in the EU and may at least initially turn out to be more significant than the part played by the new President and having a Briton right at the heart of the EU will ensure that the UK is not sidelined.
This is particularly important now that the Conservative Party have taken themselves out of the Centre-Right mainstream by the bizarre decision to withdraw their MEPs from the EPP grouping. In the event (remote, of course) of there being a Conservative Government after the next General Election, it will be important for the UK’s standing in Europe that the UK is not seen as being only represented by swivel-eyed phobics.
Thirdly and most importantly, she will do a good job. She demonstrated as Leader of the Lords that she could build consensus (she was genuinely a Leader of the whole House and not just of the Labour benches), and as a Minister that she could master complex detail (steering hugely complicated and difficult pieces of legislation through the House – not least the Bill ratifying the Lisbon Treaty).
My only regret is that this means that she will remain on “Leave of Absence” from the House of Lords while she remains in post.
And, of course, I also feel sorry for her husband Peter Kellner, who was one of my local Labour Party members when I held my first political office as a Party Branch Secretary when I was still at school almost 40 years ago. I bumped into him a few weeks after Cathy’s appointment as EU Trade Commissioner, greeting him with the words “When did you last see your wife?” and detected a whiff of sadness when he replied defensively “Sunday night”.