First things first. When the New Statesman last week talked exclusively to Peter Mandelson about his future – and Mandelson referred abstractly to the prospect of at some point coming back into the Labour fold – he categorically knew nothing of the impending move by Gordon Brown. Asked about what he might do next he was genuinely confused; he didn’t know what to say and – off the record – pointed out that it was absurd to speak about something that would not become an issue at least until late next year when his term as European Commissioner ran out.
So Brown’s old rival was genuinely taken by surprise as much as anyone else when he was summoned unexpectedly to Downing Street yesterday, before briefly consulting close friends and surreally resigning from the Commission late last night. Brown had a plan – and he also saw John Hutton in the morning to make way for Mandelson’s return – but nobody outside his tightest inner circle, which significantly no longer includes his outgoing 3am briefer Damian McBride, knew.
Civil servants were taken aback too. The first they heard about it was on Sky News.
As he said in his interview with us, Mandelson had been speaking to Brown since May, when the Prime Minister visited Brussels. Some sources say that before the party conference speech in which Mandelson had a hand, Brown gently floated the idea of a return during a conversation about the reshuffle. But at that stage Mandelson didn’t bite, and he remained semi-detached from the leadership of the party into which he was born.
The idea of some conspiracy, then – including the New Statesman interview – is wide of the mark. Maybe the interview – in which Mandelson backed and praised Brown – and the appointment have no connections. But if anything, it may not be too deluded to say that Mandelson’s qualified endorsement of Brown may have accidentally contributed to, rather than have been part of a master-plan towards, this effective but controversial natural born politician’s surprising return to government.
What is fascinating about his warning to the government not to shift to the left – and his consistent outline of the need to “renew New Labour” – is that Mandelson returns to the Cabinet on his own terms.
Questions remain. Brown has appointed Nick Brown – source of the home loan story that triggered Mandelson’s first resignation – as chief whip under the cover of his apparent master-stroke. Some hard-core Brownites are saying that Mandelson’s return hails the end of David Miliband’s leadership prospects. “Now that Peter’s back working with Gordon, David’s and the rest off that lot are screwed,” one said.
But talking to Labour activists today, what is striking is that the supposed “risk” in bringing this joint architect of New Labour back has in fact renewed confidence in Brown’s Government. Karen Landles, a member of the National Policy Forum, said: “By bringing Peter into the Cabinet, a man with proven experience in the global economy, Gordon Brown has shown himself to be a strong, inclusive leader. Peter Mandelson has been close to the hearts of all of us who care about creating a strong and just society in Britian, and – contrary to media myth – he has always been respected and admired as a key asset to the party and to the country.”