Alanna O’Malley examines Peter Mandelson’s return to power in Gordon Brown’s reshuffle as a potential end to the Labour crisis.
“Third time lucky”, joked Peter Mandelson as he left Downing Street on Friday, 3rd October having just been appointed as Business Secretary in British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown’s cabinet reshuffle. This will have been Mandelson’s third position in parliament, having been dismissed from two governments under Tony Blair.
Brown cited what he called Mandelson’s “unrivalled experience in global trade” as one of his primary reasons for this shock appointment. The move has not been received well by the opposition, with the Liberal Democrats’ Danny Alexander remarking: “Resurrecting ex-ministers from the political graveyard is not going to breathe new life into Gordon Brown’s zombie government.”
Mandelson has been referred to as the ‘Prince of Darkness’, for the behind the scenes role he played in reinventing the Labour party. Winning a landslide election in 1997, the party overturned years of Conservative rule, firmly establishing themselves as the party of prominence, a position they have held in Britain for the past eleven years.
However, Mandelson’s political career has been a little more chequered than merely the architect of the party’s reinvention. A duo of dismissals (firstly over concerns about the propriety of a loan from his then colleague, and secondly over allegations regarding the misconduct of a passport application) threatened Mandelson’s career. This public image steeped in controversy, has served to portray Mandelson as a rather austere, tenacious character.
However, his reappointment to government indicates that he may be a useful figure in Brown’s fading government.
Born into a Labour family, Mandelson has always been chameleon-like in his political affiliations. Though his grandfather was Labour Cabinet Minister Herbert Morrison, Mandelson joined the Young Communist League in his youth, when Labour supported the United States’ war in Vietnam. However when he secured a place to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, he swung back in the opposite political direction and started on the road to Labour party politics.
A close personal friend of both Brown and Blair, Mandelson was instrumental in thrusting the latter into the leadership of Labour after the sudden death of John Smith in 1994. As one political commentator put it: “Mr Mandelson sniffed the political wind and changed horses at the last moment.”
This illustrates Mandelson’s fluctuating loyalties as much as it does his skillful political maneuvering. Rather than Blair, it was Brown who was thought to be the heir to the leadership of the party in 1994, shrouding Mandelson’s recent reappointment in an air of mystery.
It has been widely speculated that Brown never forgave Mandelson for this disloyal action and that his appointment to the Prime Minister’s government may well reflect the old adage about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer.
Though in general, the behavior and actions of British politicians does not impact heavily upon Irish public opinion, in the case of Peter Mandelson, Irish apathy is unlikely.
In his role of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland from 1999 to 2001, he earned a reputation as an arch manipulator in his overseeing of the formation of the power-sharing executive and the police force.
More recently, he has been widely attacked by members of the Irish Farmers Association and agricultural lobbyists for not representing their interests at the World Trade talks in his role as EU Trade Commissioner. Whether or not Brown’s decision to remove governmenthim from this post is related to his widespread unpopularity among rural communities both in Britain and Ireland is questionable.
It is more likely that, in this time of economic crisis, Brown may come to rely upon Mandelson’s skills as a supreme manipulator. Announcing his reshuffle, Brown commented that he needed “serious people for serious times”, and it can be no coincidence that he has brought back one of the most skilful and expert negotiators that Labour has ever produced.
For his beleaguered cabinet, an injection of a controversial figure such as Mandelson, may improve Brown’s dwindling approval ratings. Taking hits both from the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives on Labour’s handling of the British economic crisis and suffering some perceived mutiny from young upshots like Foreign Secretary David Miliband, Mandelson may be much needed lifeline for the cabinet.
Though rumors persist of a personal feud between the two men, it can be argued that Mandelson will be grateful for Nearythis welcome in out of the cold, and for his part, Brown now has a new lease of life in the party.
Whether or not the inclusion of one of the driving forces behind the new Labour movement will serve to re-invigorate his government remains to be seen. However given the controversial records of his previous periods in office, it will speak to the prestige of Brown as a politician whether he is able to harness the force that is Peter Mandelson for good or whether the ‘dark knight’ may just bring down the whole castle this time round.