Lord Mandelson homes in on No 10

As Britain's government becomes more chaotic by the day, Lord Mandelson takes over at No 10.

Graham Dines

As Britain's government becomes more chaotic by the day, Lord Mandelson takes over at No 10. EADT Political editor GRAHAM DINES muses if this is a dry run for a tilt at the top job

FOR 72 hours, no-one was sitting in Downing Street running the day-to-day business of the United Kingdom. Harriet Harman, in the hot seat since July 27 as Prime Minister Gordon Brown enjoyed a break at his Scottish home, flew to Spain for her own holiday last Thursday and handed over to Lord Mandelson, the First Secretary of State.

The only trouble was nobody had warned Mandelson that his holiday clashed with Harman's, so he was initially caught on the back foot as he tried to relax in Corfu.

Enjoying the high life among the rich and famous over the weekend, it was said Mandelson was keeping in touch via his Blackberry and there was no need for him to be in the UK to take major decisions.

This sounds like a typical piece of Mandelson self-aggrandisement. As soon as the Blackberry story hit the media, Downing Street was forced to issue a swift insistence that the PM remained in charge,

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Of course, the machinery of government, including the codes to launch nuclear ballistic missiles from Royal Navy submarines, has been with the Prime Minister even while he's on holiday, and will remain with him until he returns at the beginning of next month.

Yet even prime ministers need some respite from the mundane business of government.

And it works for spin maestro Mandelson to play up his own role in this battered government because yet again, we could soon be in the middle of the opening salvos of a leadership campaign.

Peter Mandelson belies his calm, cultured and mild mannered exterior. He is a deadly street fighter, prone to massive errors of judgement.

Mandelson, forced twice to resign from the Cabinet, was brought back from his job as a Europe Commissioner by Gordon Brown to shore up this crisis-ridden government and, hopefully, even to bring a touch of stability. To facilitate his return, he was made a life peer.

On the face of it, that should have dashed any hopes Mandelson had of one day being Prime Minister. But as Her Majesty's First Secretary of State - Deputy Prime Minister in all but name - Mandelson is perfectly placed if he wishes to make a pitch for the top job.

How could he achieve this? If Labour's party conference next month in Brighton descends into chaos and open revolt over Brown's leadership, there is an outside chance that there will be a renewed effort for him to stand down.

Although the scenario goes that a rejuvenated Labour government under a new leader could either win the next election or, at worst, keep the size of the Conservative majority down, there aren't many people prepared to risk being a loser.

Alan Johnson and David Miliband won't, leaving Labour with the unenviable choice of deputy leader Harriet Harman and Mandelson.

The confusion over his “governing by Blackberry” won't have endeared Mandelson to the legions of Labour MPs for whom he is anathema.

But if Mandelson won a leadership battle, he couldn't be prime minister from the Lords. He would have to find an MP in a safe seat prepared to resign and force a by-election.

It seems that Hilary Armstrong is being lined up to fall on her sword. She's MP for Durham North-West, a constituency which includes stunning scenery as well as heavy industry. She had a majority of 13,443 at the last election over the Liberal Democrats and, it is argued, not even Peter Mandelson could lose such a seat.

The last Prime Minister who was a member of the Lords when he was appointed was Lord Home, who renounced his hereditary peerage to become Sir Alec Douglas-Home. He fought and won a by-election in Kinross and Perthshire West and nearly won the 1964 general election.

Mandelson will be able to use this week to establish his own credentials as a Labour leader in waiting. Chancellor Alistair Darling takes charge next Monday and the following week Justice Secretary Jack Straw takes over.

This lack of cohesion is no way to run a country. Four ministers taking turns to play with the train set has never happened before.

Under Tony Blair, John Prescott was Deputy Prime Minister and everyone knew that if push came to shove, he had the power and the authority to co-ordinate a government response to domestic and international crises.

The machinery of government has to continue in August. Soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan over the weekend while the man nominally in charge of Britain was drinking Krug with the Rothschilds.

It's no way to run a country.


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