Mandelson is no kind of leader

Left alone in power, this obedient courtier would wither like a salted snail

The debate over the possibility of a Mandelson premiership remains little more than a Westminster parlour game but a number of figures are now openly touting the Business Secretary as an alternative Prime Minister.

Dr Peter Slowe, the newly-elected chairman of the Labour Finance and Industry group, was the first off the mark, arguing: "Mandelson is the only one with the clout, intellect and charisma who could realistically take on the Tories and win."

And the venerable William Rees-Mogg writes in the Times today:

"Lord Mandelson is the frontrunner; the worse the problems become, the stronger he will be. Like his grandfather, Herbert Morrison, who was the boss of London Labour politics for about 25 years, Peter Mandelson combines political skills with an entrepreneurial approach. His capacity for changing politics is like that of a major entrepreneur revolutionising an industry. It is hard to think of a political performance equal to Lord Mandelson's past 12 months. Many people go from hero to zero; Mandelson has gone from zero to hero. He appears to be the only Labour politician with the force of personality to change the bleak political weather."

Such pocket hagiographies conveniently ignore Mandelson's humiliating climbdown over the part-privatisation of Royal Mail and the public's stubborn refusal to embrace Westminster's prodigal son.

The technical obstacles to a Mandelson premiership may soon be removed through Jack Straw's amendment allowing life peers to relinquish their seats, but the political obstacles remain considerable.

Many of those who discuss the Labour leadership most vigorously continue to do so without reference to the party's electoral college, under which the affiliated trade unions hold a third of the votes. There has, to put it mildly, never been a pro-Mandelson faction in the TUC but his attempt to sell a minority stake in Royal Mail has ensured that any lone supporters will be lying low.

Yet more than this, the belief that Mandelson is well equipped to become Prime Minister represents a fundamental misreading of his life and career.

Mandelson was astute and self-critical enough to recognise early on that he was no kind of leader. Instead, he made it his mission, his raison d'être to serve those who were. His relationship with successive Labour leaders, from Kinnock to Blair and finally Brown, pays testament to this.

The reason why Brown is intensely relaxed about Mandelson's status as de facto deputy prime minister is that he more than most knows that what Mandelson craves is access and influence, not the chance to lead. There is no hidden agenda behind his fierce defence of Brown's leadership in yesterday's News of the World.

As the novelist Edward Docx wrote in his extensive profile of Mandelson for Prospect, "the default setting in Mandelson's hard drive has been to identify the most powerful person in prospect and then work exclusively, almost slavishly, for them -- often at the expense of all other relationships."

Mandelson's relentless focus on individuals means that he has failed to build the factional support that all leaders depend on.

The truth is that left alone in power with no master to serve, this obedient courtier would wither like a salted snail.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.