Magazine article The Spectator

The Peter to Come

Magazine article The Spectator

The Peter to Come

Article excerpt

Brighton

LABOUR activists' rejection of Peter Mandelson's candidature for the National Executive Committee appears to present the Prime Minister with a simple dilemma: can he carry out his intention to promote the Minister without Portfolio to full Cabinet rank in the next reshuffle, or not? To keep so patently powerful a figure at junior ministerial level is an insult to the Cabinet. To promote him so soon after a democratically delivered snub from the membership is an insult to the party.

Fortunately for Mr Mandelson, Tony Blair does not care about such things. It is hard to imagine any circumstances in which he would desist from a course of action he had planned because it transpired that it was not in tune with the wishes of the Labour grass-roots. As if we needed reminding, his speech to the Labour conference this week hardly even pretended that Labour members are his constituency, nor should they be for the Prime Minister.

Unfortunate though it was that Mr Mandelson failed to gain admittance in the afternoon to an institution which the New Labour machine had effectively abolished in the morning, other factors make it almost certain that Mr Blair will soften the blow by putting his friend in the Cabinet. The first is that the prevailing wisdom concerning the timing of Mr Blair's first reshuffle is changing. It had been assumed that there would be some fairly serious changes to the government in the autumn. It now seems that little major activity is expected this side of Christmas. This extra breathing space between the NEC fiasco and the reshuffle will make for a more seemly transfiguration when Mr Mandelson finally ascends to the Cabinet.

Another point in his favour is that, for a first-timer, Mr Mandelson did well enough to be respectable. Had he recorded a derisory low vote of less than 30,000, it would have required a very bold decision by the Prime Minister to promote him. Mr Blair would have done it anyway, but he would have had to use up some of his own and Mr Mandelson's political capital.

There is also ample precedent for Labour politicians' successful Cabinet careers being unaffected by failure in the NEC ballot. Nobody suggests that Jack Straw should not be Home Secretary because he had lost his place on the executive. Indeed, there was a point in the Seventies when Denis Healey's only serious badge of credibility as a Labour Chancellor was that he could not hold his place on the NEC.

Essentially, though, Mr Mandelson will be appointed to the Cabinet because it would be absurd for him not to be. This is not because it undermines the institution of Cabinet government to have so powerful a minister, even one who sits on a very large number of Cabinet committees, outside the Cabinet. In truth, Cabinet committees no longer really meet under Labour. There is remarkably little left of Cabinet government to undermine, though Mr Mandelson's exclusion does undermine the personal prestige which attaches to incumbent members of the Cabinet. If Mr Mandelson's not in, what is the point of anyone being in the Cabinet?

Mr Mandelson is a friend of the Prime Minister, intimately involved in the grand project to renew the nation. Mr Mandelson's contribution to the success of New Labour generally and Blair personally is incalculable. Of course he will go into the Cabinet, probably with the `proper departmental job' which he craves. The last people allowed to gainsay this will be the very Labour activists whose effective disenfranchisement is such a major part of the Blair project. …

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