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October 06, 2008

Mandelson's Return: Brownites against Brown?

Amid the forest of pages dedicated to Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson’s rapprochement few have asked exactly how cordial relations will be between Mandelson and Brown’s hitmen.

Charlie Whelan, Brown’s pugnacious former press spokesman, has recently been flexing his muscles again as political director of super-union Unite. Immediately after Brown’s conference speech, Whelan could be found swaggering around telling anyone within earshot that the Prime Minister’s ‘novice’ line was aimed directly at David Miliband. Prior to this, it’s widely thought that Whelan ordered Derek Simpson’s blast against the “smug” and “arrogant” Miliband. Whelan’s stock has risen once more as Labour has become ever more reliant on the funds of trade unions in general, and on those of Unite’s two million members in particular.

It’s worth recalling therefore that it was an incredulous Whelan who in 2004, writing on Mandelson in the New Statesman, declared, “Can you believe, then, that some hacks are suggesting the twice-disgraced ex-minister will make a third comeback?”

Well, now he has, and it’s likely Whelan is infuriated by the return of a figure he perennially dubbed ‘Trousers’, at the hands of the man whose cause he has championed for over fifteen years. Nor is Whelan’s the only Brownite nose put out of joint by Mandelson’s appointment.

Kevin Maguire, political columnist for the vociferously loyal Daily Mirror and the man who Brown unsuccessfully headhunted as his Communications chief, “called the appointment a “grave error” and wrote that “Bringing the Prince of Darkness over from Brussels makes him look weak.”

Meanwhile, rumours abound that Mandelson is set to usurp Douglas Alexander as Labour’s general election coordinator. Alexander, one of those who Mandelson undoubtedly had in mind when he testified that Brown “wasn’t surrounded by the easiest people either”, may still be raw from taking the rap for the aborted election, and Brown is now risking further alienation. Labour put out a press release earlier today confirming that Alexander remained election coordinator, an act which perhaps brings to mind the late journalist Claud Cockburn’s adage that one should “never believe anything until it is officially denied.”

Ed Balls, another implacable Brownite, put it very mildly when he declared that Mandelson’s return was a “risk”, and after years of combat with him throughout the nineties it’s no surprise to learn that he pleaded with the big man to think again.

The key to all of this is that Brown has put himself on the other side of a key political decision to his chief union fixer, his main press supporter and his two most historically loyal cabinet members. It’ll probably take more than pragmatic assertions that you should “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” (Michael Corleone) or that “It’s better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in.” (LBJ), to placate these figures.

In the past Brown would often hit Mandelson by proxy, the stories are best documented in Tom Bower’s damning biography of the PM, and so inevitably many of the sharpest exchanges took place at this level.

It’s for this reason that Mandelson felt it important to stress in his Observer interview that he “could work-not just with him (Brown), but with those closest to him, with whom I’ve had a difficult relationship in the past as well.”

This has a whiff of the Panglossian to me and now Mandelson’s occasional forays from Europe have been replaced by a full-time residency in the cauldron of Westminster I don’t think it’ll be long before the screaming matches start again.

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