Back To The Future Again

Created on 3/9/2008

It was predicted with some certainty that Prime Minister Gordon Brown was going to administer the coup de grace and finally kill off Peter Mandelson's career in frontline politics when his term as EU trade commissioner shortly expired.

But in a move that has stunned everyone, including veteran expert Westminster observers, he has decided instead to bring his oldest active political enemy back into the heart of British government.

Just when all his foes thought it was safe, along comes the bogeyman of British politics. I refer to the eponymous and clearly undead Peter Mandelson. Lately he held one of the most powerful jobs in the European Union as Commissioner for Trade and now finds himself back in the bosom of the Labour Party cabinet as the UK’s Minister for Business.

Mandelson is now justifying his tag as the comeback king of British politics having been drafted back into the fray for the third time. He doesn’t even have to go through the messy business of having to stand for election to Parliament to take up his position, as he will be made a Lord so that this irksome task is unnecessary. He previously had to give up his Hartlepool parliamentary seat ahead of his move to Brussels.

It was another dramatic twist in a career that has never been short of large helpings of drama and intrigue. This is a man born for political intrigue, a modern Machiavelli. 

Mandelson was involved in a major public row over free trade with French and current EU President Nicholas Sarkozy who accused him of trying to sell out European farmers. The feisty French leader also seemed to blame Mandelson’s handling of the Doha round of trade talks for the "no" vote in the Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty. Both these claims appear unfounded but where the EU Commissioner travels controversy is always sure to be a bedfellow.

Mr. Mandelson claimed his position at world trade talks has been undermined and went on to say that he did not start the row but: "I stood up for myself, I'm not to be bullied." He said he believed the row was over but renewed his warnings on protectionism.

One of the most memorable moments in the boring 2001 general election was Mr. Mandelson's victory speech. In an unforgettable and out of character, emotionally charged performance, the twice-disgraced Hartlepool MP declared at a post-poll rally: "I'm a fighter, not a quitter."

Ever since, and despite never ending high-level opposition right across the Labour Party, he worked quietly and assiduously behind the scenes for yet another resurrection - while publicly declaring precisely the opposite.

For many, of course, his greatest successes were already long behind him. Little did we know that we were in a time machine once again traveling back to the future?

Whatever his detractors may claim Mandelson does have a formidable record. He did help create New Labour. However those that don’t like him say that his alleged tactics - a mixture of bullying, spin and manipulation – created more enemies than friends for him and his beloved Party.

Lest we forget this is the same man who has been an archenemy of Prime Minister Gordon Brown over many years. Their mutual distaste was not just dislike, it was simmering hate.  Mandelson was the kingmaker who thrust Tony Blair into the leadership in 1994 after the sudden death of John Smith.

This came at the very moment that everyone thought Gordon Brown was the heir apparent. Mr. Mandelson sniffed the political wind and ruthlessly changed horses at the last moment.

Brown had appeared not to forgive Mandelson for this despite the latter’s stating that he believes the ex Chancellor was Tony Blair's natural successor.

It’s now clear that relations had recently improved, with the EU Trade Commissioner publicly declaring his vocal support for Mr. Brown in this week's New Statesman while urging him not to abandon the New Labour "project".

"I do not think that changing the face at the top is the panacea some imagine," he said.

"But the whole of the leadership must remain true to the values and principles that have delivered us success in the past ten years."

Say what you like about Peter Mandelson, and there are many that do just that, everyone agrees that he has impeccable Labour Party credentials in his DNA. Mandelson was born in London in 1953, where his father was the advertising manager at the Jewish Chronicle. On his mother's side, he is the grandson of Herbert Morrison, the London County Council leader and Labour cabinet minister. This will be the third time he has answered the call to re-enter front line Cabinet positions, having resigned on both previous occasions.

Even Mr. Mandelson's sternest critics accept he is a slick political operator and a good networker. Those that worked with him as a Minister also make it plain that he was a very able Minister.

And with four years as trade commissioner under his belt, he could be a valuable asset as Mr. Brown seeks to beef up his government's response to the current global economic turmoil. For Prime Minister Brown to get this particular gentleman back into his team speaks to his growing desperation to win the next election.