Gordon Brown stole a march by recalling Peter Mandelson. But he may yet end up regretting it.
That thudding? The sound of jaws hitting the floor. Gordon Brown’s reappointment of Peter Mandelson to his cabinet on Friday caught almost all of Britain’s political observers by surprise. Actually, scratch the almost: as far as I know no one picked it.
The cabinet reshuffle had been trailed as a low-key affair, and for the most part so it was — all the big portfolios stayed put. But the announcement of Peter Mandelson as the new business secretary was truly gobsmacking. Mandelson, aka Mandy, aka the prince of darkness, was one of the principal architects of the New Labour project, together with Brown, Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell. But he famously and explosively fell out with Brown in the heady days of 1994, after he backed Tony Blair for the Labour leadership.
The old enmity between the pair is captured nicely by a tale told – or so it's said - by Brown following the fallout. “Peter asked to borrow 10p to phone a friend,” Brown is reputed to have said. “I gave him 20p and told him to call them all.” Too good to check.
As the denim of New Labour tore down the middle into Blairite and Brownite, Mandelson was squarely with Tony, and profoundly against Gordon. Renowned for his scheming and spinning - at moments he reminds me of Sir Humphrey Appleby - his life in Blair’s cabinets was fraught: twice he was appointed and twice forced to resign in a mire of scandal (the second time round he was subsequently cleared of wrongdoing). Then, four years ago, he quit as an MP after being sent by Blair to Brussels to take on the job of EU trade commissioner. The idea of Mandelson being reinstated to cabinet by ally Blair was unthinkable. By antagonist Brown? Never.
The PM's astonishing gambit — which will require Mandelson being appointed to the House of Lords — has been characterised as his “Sarah Palin moment”. An act of desparation? Perhaps: for all that Brown made a net gain in the polls from the party conferences, Labour remain a telling 12% behind the Tories. And while Brown is getting good reports for his economic management at a time of crisis, the financial meltdown has yet to hit home for most. If predictions of a million-plus rise in unemployment prove true, the prime minister may quickly find sympathy dwindling. Another commentator put Brown’s unexpected embrace of Mandelson like this: “It is not irrational for a man losing his footing to grab at a cactus for support; but the cactus is still a cactus.”
The appointment is a massive, massive risk. It achieves three things: it extinguishes any flickering Blairite plot to unseat Brown; it keeps Brown on the front foot, with the momentum, looking imaginative; and it brings an enormous amount of experience, both to the portfolio and strategically to the party. That last asset should not be laughed off. Mandelson did well in both his cabinet roles: at Trade and Industry and as Northern Ireland secretary, and most people judge his performance as EU trade commissioner a success, even if he ultimately failed to push through the recent Doha negotiations. And as a political operator, a partisan strategist, he has few peers.
If all of that can be harnessed in robust defence of the British economy and ruthless attack of the British Conservative party, then Brown’s bombshell will be recorded as a masterstroke. But the decision will enrage those on the left of Labour, inside and outside parliament, perplex the public, and, crucially, plant a potential powder keg at the door to Downing Street. This morning’s Sunday Times reports that only a few weeks ago Mandelson was “dripping pure poison about Gordon Brown into the ear of a senior Conservative” (that would be George Osborne). Today, Mandelson is adamant that he and the PM are “joined at the hip”. But only the brave would bet against Mandy playing a part in Brown’s eventual downfall.