The British government has told Peter Mandelson it will not back him as a potential candidate to lead the World Trade Organization because of his anti-Brexit views, but Liam Fox, the Eurosceptic former Tory trade secretary, remained in the frame on Tuesday night.
Lord Mandelson, a former EU trade commissioner and UK business secretary in the Labour government of Gordon Brown, might conceivably have secured some support from EU governments for the WTO’s top job given his previous role in Brussels.
But the peer was abruptly told by Liz Truss, international trade secretary, on Monday that the British government would not back him because he was “not a Brexiter”.
Ms Truss did not question Lord Mandelson’s qualifications for the world’s top trade job, but said in a terse phone call that the government would not support him because he had opposed the UK’s 2016 vote to leave the EU. Her office declined to comment.
“Nominating me would probably annoy some in Tory ranks who are more tribal Britain than global Britain but I hoped my experience and credentials would outweigh political considerations,” Lord Mandelson said. “I am sure the WTO will find someone else qualified to lead the organisation.”
The blackballing of Lord Mandelson left Mr Fox as the other potential British candidate but the pro-Brexit Tory MP — an ardent Atlanticist — is seen in trade circles as standing little chance, not least because he would not win EU support.
“That’s the problem in a nutshell,” said one Tory ex-minister. “We had one candidate who might have been acceptable to Europe but was unacceptable to Downing Street and another candidate acceptable to Number 10 but not to the EU.”
Only hours remain for new candidates to come forward in the race to secure the leadership of the WTO, the organisation tasked with upholding the global rule book for free and non-discriminatory trade.
Downing Street said no final decision had been taken on whether to run a candidate but one official said “discussions were ongoing” about whether Mr Johnson would formally propose Mr Fox on Wednesday.
Mr Fox’s allies were hopeful he would get the nod, but his candidature is controversial at the top of government. “It’s not a good look for us to field someone unless we are certain they will be elected,” one official said.
The contest was triggered by the decision of current director-general Roberto Azevêdo to step down early. The Brazilian is set to depart at the end of August and Wednesday is the deadline for countries to nominate candidates.
For the moment there are six: Egypt’s Hamid Mamdouh, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala from Nigeria, Jesús Seade Kuri of Mexico, Tudor Ulianovschi from Moldova, South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee, and Amina Mohamed from Kenya.
The EU looks set to allow the deadline to pass without putting forward a candidate after Phil Hogan, the bloc’s trade policy chief, flirted with the idea of joining the race before withdrawing his interest.
On possible British candidates, one EU diplomat said Mr Fox was “not taken seriously”, while Lord Mandelson “would be a serious candidate” if given firm backing by the UK government. His candidacy “would also pose a serious dilemma to the EU”, the diplomat said.