Joined-up government?

10 Oct 08
MELISSA BENN | It could be the biggest political news story of the autumn: the return of the Prince of Darkness, or the Prince of Sleaze as one newspaper unkindly called him.

It could be the biggest political news story of the autumn: the return of the Prince of Darkness, or the Prince of Sleaze as one newspaper unkindly called him.

Media excitement about Peter Mandelson’s surprise return was palpable, even after the financial markets plummeted at the beginning of the week and the man himself was rushed into hospital for the removal of kidney stones.

But how much of the thrill, for Labour MPs and commentators alike, was about the past: this one last chance to recapture the glory days of New Labour, Shakespearean tensions and all? There’s undoubtedly a sense of last-ditch, all-boys-together bravado.

It’s not only Mandelson. The debonair Alastair Campbell is back on board. John Prescott is apparently touring the Commons tea rooms arguing for a fourth term. Even the backbench rebels of the summer have declared an end to ‘hostilities’.

The dire state of the economy is obviously a big part of Brown’s new-found strength. Terror of financial collapse is even greater than the fear of being hammered in 2010.

But the Mandelson appointment was canny. By bringing his oldest, and possibly most powerful, enemy on board, Brown has taken measures to protect himself from the cruellest possible interpretations of his period in office.

If the government loses the next election, still the most likely scenario, Brown’s premiership is now more likely to be judged as the unlucky end of the New Labour project as a whole, rather than the dismal and lonely coda to a more successful Blair premiership.

Short term, Mandelson gives Brown two important boosts. As an undoubtedly big character, he has already helped to liven up what was looking like a drab administration.

It’s a superficial calculation, but Mandelson can also help the prime minister in his weakest area: presentation. Brown needs to keep the message of the moment clear and simple, to try to look a little more fresh and relaxed whatever his inner turmoil, and to stop flashing that awful rictal grin.

Extraordinary as it seems, given his two-time sacking for apparent financial irregularities, Mandelson’s appointment, and his European experience, helps convey the impression of economic gravitas.

He fits in comfortably with a team that is as near to a national government as Brown can feasibly assemble. The outspokenly Right-wing Lord Digby Jones might have been shoved aside, but other prominent businessmen have been bought to the fore. Leading bankers sit on Brown’s economic war council.

Longer term, the impact of Mandelson’s return is less clear. It could all spectacularly misfire, of course. Raging paranoia, unbridled competition, faction-fighting galore; with not just one but two intense prima donnas at the helm, the large and politically heterogenous cabinet could implode.

How, in particular, will that swathe of middle-ranking but highly ambitious ministers, like Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, who have risen swiftly under Brown’s patronage, fare with the suave wicked uncle back on board?

More importantly, the new business secretary could act as a fatal stall on Brown’s best-laid plans, in particular his pledge to make fairness the keynote of his administration, despite the economic storms. Once the immediate crisis is over, there will inevitably be calls of Never Again. Will Brown take the necessary steps to regulate the excesses of the market? Will he crack down on the tax avoidance of the super-rich, or excessive City bonuses? Will enough be done to protect those facing repossession or job or pension losses, as opposed to the rich, facing paper losses of billions?

As the Trades Union Congress leader Brendan Barber argued this week, ‘this will mean posing some profound challenges to Britain’s financial establishment, not paying court to them’. And Barber is not the only one to be distrustful of the likely part Mandelson will play in pushing that agenda.

But for now, Brown must know how lucky he is to continue to benefit, politically, from the economic meltdown. In America, President George W Bush’s association with unregulated capitalism has done him and his potential successor, John McCain, untold harm. Here it is the gleamingly assured David Cameron and George Osborne who have suffered some damage by association.

But that could all change very quickly. Voters might be grateful to Brown, Mandelson and co if they pull us through the horrors of plunging stock markets and frozen banks, rocketing inflation and rising unemployment.

But should the economy stabilise and memories of overpaid City boys fade, voters might turn to the Tories, with their unlikely claims to represent a new progressive consensus, for a fresh start. Not even the magic of Mandelson can save his gruff old enemy then. But the old boys can, at least, walk off into the sunset together. Joined at the hip, of course.

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