Blair offers Mandelson job on European Commission

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair offered Peter Mandelson the job as Britain's member of the European Commission yesterday and shelved a planned cabinet reshuffle.

Tony Blair offered Peter Mandelson the job as Britain's member of the European Commission yesterday and shelved a planned cabinet reshuffle.

Downing Street's plans to announce Mr Mandelson's appointment were put on hold when the former cabinet minister and close Blair ally asked for more time to decide whether he wants to go to Brussels. But Number 10 announced formally today that Mr Mandelson will join the Commission this autumn.

A No 10 spokesman said Mr Blair spoke to the Commission President Jose Manuel Barosso earlier today to pass on the nomination "and received a positive response".

Mr Mandelson is expected to take up his post on November 1, once the college of commissioners has been approved by the European parliament, meaning a by-election in his Hartlepool seat.

The former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, who has twice resigned from the Cabinet, had been expected to jump at the chance of a return to a frontline post in Brussels. But he had a last-minute wobble and asked Mr Blair to let him "sleep on it" last night. Mr Mandelson told friends he was having second thoughts about leaving Parliament, his Hartlepool constituency, the New Labour project and his role as an adviser to Mr Blair at a time when a general election was looming.

His critics at Westminster were quick to interpret this as an attempt to secure a second comeback to the Cabinet after the election, which is expected to be held next May. That was flatly denied by his allies.

Mr Blair had been expected to reshuffle his Cabinet yesterday or today but left for his Sedgefield constituency last night without announcing any changes. John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, shouted across the Commons chamber: "There is no reshuffle."

The shake-up is likely to be shelved until at least September - although there could be minor changes if Mr Mandelson rejects a move to Brussels and a minister is chosen in his place. Contenders could include Baroness Scotland of Asthal, a Home Office minister, Baroness Amos, the Leader of the House of Lords, and Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary.

There was a day of confusion, rumour and speculation at Westminster as MPs and journalists awaited news of the expected reshuffle and the Brussels appointment. On Parliament's last day before its summer recess, the Government had planned to move the writ for a by-election in Mr Mandelson's Hartlepool constituency. This would have allowed a short, sharp campaign with voting in three weeks' time, denying the Liberal Democrats the time to build the momentum that allowed them to win the Brent East by-election in September last year.

There was an element of farce when Downing Street considered moving the writ during the summer recess, but discovered that, under parliamentary rules, it could only do so if Mr Mandelson was declared dead, mador bankrupt or was appointed a peer. The prospect of creating Lord Mandelson of Hartlepool was judged a step too far, even for a rejuvenated Mr Blair.

"It's been a day of chaos and confusion," one Blair ally admitted. "We looked at all the options. It's been a bit of a shambles."

The writ will be moved when MPs return, allowing a Hartlepool by-election towards the end of September. At the last election Labour had a majority of 14,571 over the Tories, but fears an advance by the Liberal Democrats.

The postponement of the reshuffle means that Ian McCartney, who had been widely tipped for a move, will keep his job as chairman of the Labour Party. His team may be strengthened. On Tuesday, Labour's national executive committee unanimously expressed confidence in Mr McCartney. Moving him would have played badly in the party, especially as its national policy forum is meeting at Warwick University this weekend.