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The Commissioner, by Stanley Johnson

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Before he set out for Cologne, Morton spoke to Sir Oliver Passmore on the telephone to ask for any further news or indication of what to expect. Passmore chose his words with care. He had been choosing his words with care for most of his life. 'We're not absolutely sure what Kramer intends,' Passmore told him. 'He may try to do what his predecessor, Jacques Delors did, when he was President-designate back in 1985.'

This is another real political treasure of times past, a thriller written by none less than the father of Boris Johnson, himself a former MEP and Commission official who is now one of the best known environmentalists on the political Right in England. The book was written in 1987, set in 1989; I must have read it in the mid-90s, when I was politically engaged in Belfast, though I missed the 1998 film starring John Hurt. (This is the second book I have read recently which was made into a film starring John Hurt.)

It's a rather moral story. James Morton, a Tory MP with a second-rate job but a first-rate majority, is sent by Margaret Thatcher to Brussels as the new British Commissioner. He struggles with the unglamorous position of Commissioner for Industry, but finds himself in the middle of a massive scandal involving the chemical industry and environmental damage, facing off against vested interests in Germany, Britain and the Commission itself, and also in a personal dilemma between his American wife and his Portuguese colleague. The ending turns out rather ambiguous, with good and bad guys both claiming their share of the spoils.

It's surprising, thirty years on, to remember that there was a time when a Conservative writer - a member of the Johnson family, no less - was capable of nuanced commentary about European politics (though I fear not about the Irish). I appreciate now, more than I did before I came to Belgium, the touches of local colour - Morton and his wife move to Rhode-St-Génèse, which was where we first lived when we moved here in 1999; La Maison du Cygne and Comme Chez Soi are still reputedly the best restaurants in town; there is still something of an old-guard clubbish elite around the Place Royale/Sablon where occasionally I get invited to stand outside and look in the window (one missing venue is the Egmont Palace). It's an account by someone who knows and loves the town.

Though much has also changed. There are now 28 Commissioners rather than 12; more importantly, Morton's successor, the Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, has quasi-judicial powers to prevent dubious mergers without anyone else's permission, rather than needing to wage the political campaign that Morton gets tied up in. Also, as I commented in my last review, it's impossible to imagine a romance between two high-profile political figures going unnoticed in the age of the 24 hour news cycle and the Internet.

Still, it's worth getting hold of, if you can, to take your mind back to the late 1980s, a time which, though we did not realise it, was a much more innocent age than our own.

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