Joined-Up Government?

By Benn, Melissa | Public Finance, October 10, 2008 | Go to article overview

Joined-Up Government?


Benn, Melissa, Public Finance


It could be the biggest political news story of the autumn: the return of the Prince of Darkness, or the Prince of Sleaze as one newspaper unkindly called him. Media excitement about Peter Mandelson's surprise return was palpable, even after the financial markets plummeted at the beginning of the week and the man himself was rushed into hospital for the removal of kidney stones.

But how much of the thrill, for Labour MPs and commentators alike, was about the past: this one last chance to recapture the glory days of New Labour, Shakespearean tensions and all? There's undoubtedly a sense of last-ditch, all-boys-together bravado.

It's not only Mandelson. The debonair Alastair Campbell is back on board. John Prescott is apparently touring the Commons tea rooms arguing for a fourth term. Even the backbench rebels of the summer have declared an end to 'hostilities'.

The dire state of the economy is obviously a big part of Brown's newfound strength. Terror of financial collapse is even greater than the fear of being hammered in 2010.

But the Mandelson appointment was canny. By bringing his oldest, and possibly most powerful, enemy on board, Brown has taken measures to protect himself from the cruellest possible interpretations of his period in office.

If the government loses the next election, still the most likely scenario, Brown's premiership is now more likely to be judged as the unlucky end of the New Labour project as a whole, rather than the dismal and lonely coda to a more successful Blair premiership.

Short term, Mandelson gives Brown two important boosts. As an undoubtedly big character, he has already helped to liven up what was looking like a drab administration.

It's a superficial calculation, but Mandelson can also help the prime minister in his weakest area: presentation. Brown needs to keep the message of the moment clear and simple, to try to look a little more fresh and relaxed whatever his inner turmoil, and to stop flashing that awful rictal grin.

Extraordinary as it seems, given his two-time sacking for apparent financial irregularities, Mandelson's appointment, and his European experience, helps convey the impression of economic gravitas.

He fits in comfortably with a team that is as near to a national government as Brown can feasibly assemble. The outspokenly Rightwing Lord Digby Jones might have been shoved aside, but other prominent businessmen have been bought to the fore. Leading bankers sit on Brown's economic war council.

Longer term, the impact of Mandelson's return is less clear. …

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