Harman versus Mandelson: the fight for Labour's future

The spat between the Prime Minister's two most senior lieutenants has real substance, reports Jonathan Brown
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It is the sort of problem which can ruin any boss's holiday. Gordon Brown, a man for whom downtime must pose more problems than most, was faced this weekend with the public escalation of a bitter spat between his two most senior lieutenants.

Labour's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, is halfway through her period in charge of the Government. But come the end of the week, she must hand over to her arch rival, Lord Mandelson, Mr Brown's real number two and the man regarded as most likely to succeed him. To make matters worse, the First Secretary has spoiled most of Ms Harman's first week in the hot seat by busily hogging the limelight. Yet the deputy leader is said to be relishing her temporary status as de facto chief, holding meetings amid the august surroundings of the Cabinet Room, receiving top-level security briefings and liaising with ministers on matters from swine flu to defence.

Yesterday she sought to burnish her credentials as a leader in waiting in an extraordinary interview with The Sunday Times headlined "Look out, boys – I'm in charge now". She revealed how she had tried to change Labour Party rules two years ago to ensure that a woman would always be either number one or two in the party. "Men cannot be left to run things on their own," she said. "It's a thoroughly bad thing to have men-only leadership."

Such views from the woman regarded as the Government's in-house feminist and lampooned in some quarters as Harriet Harperson, will appeal to many women voters. But her opponents dismissed it as self-aggrandisement by someone whose eyes remain firmly on the main prize. Mr Prescott, who lambasted Ms Harman's role in Labour's recent European and local election campaign, was moved to blog: "I read with real sadness your interview with The Sunday Times today... I know you don't choose the headlines. But you did choose the words in the interview."

Lord Mandelson, too, has been making hay. On Monday he delivered a major speech on higher education at Birkbeck College. The following day he sat down to a long Newsnight interview with the BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson. Before the week was out, he had committed his boss to a televised interview with Tory leader David Cameron – stealing one of the few rabbits Mr Brown was hoping to pull from his party-conference-speech hat in the autumn. Only yesterday, he laid out his ideas once more in an article in the News of the World. Such is the momentum behind the peer that odds on his eventual premiership were slashed from 200-1 to 16-1 and he is now being openly touted as a rational choice to replace Mr Brown in the event of a Labour defeat at the general election next year. The Business Secretary – who was twice forced to resign from the Government under a cloud – might have dismissed suggestions he take advantage of new laws before Parliament allowing peers to renounce their titles and sit in the Commons, as a "comeback too far". Nevertheless, one suggestion doing the rounds is that he could be shoe-horned into the vacant – and safe – seat of close ally Hilary Armstrong in North West Durham by the time the country goes to the polls.

Ms Harman, who was sacked by Tony Blair in 1998 only to triumphantly rebuild her ministerial career, is now the most powerful female politician since Margaret Thatcher. Having recently rubbed shoulders with the first woman Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, she used her interview to outline plans to establish an international summit for women leaders to take place beside the G20, still a bastion of male power in her view.

Yet for much of last week, Ms Harman was engaged with more prosaic matters such as resolving the fallout from her decision to re-appoint Trevor Phillips as the £120,000 head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission – a move which sparked a rash of damaging resignations from the watchdog. Forced to deny that she was a "socialising friend" of Mr Phillips during a television interview yesterday, she admitted that mistakes had been made in the way that the quango was set up.

Mr Brown was said to be less than enamored with Ms Harman's victory in the deputy leadership contest, although she has won grudging plaudits when she has stood in for him at the dispatch box. His debt to his former bitter foe Lord Mandelson – who helped him see off a Blairite coup against his leadership in the midst of the MPs expenses crisis – is, by contrast, deep. At the height of the spate of Cabinet departures, Mr Brown was accused by outgoing Europe minister Caroline Flint of using women as "window dressing". Perhaps then it is little surprise that it is Lord Mandelson – rewarded for his loyalty with his First Secretary title and with 11 ministers answering to him – who fields early morning calls from the Prime Minister – not Ms Harman.

But there is real substance to the disagreements between Ms Harman and Lord Mandelson. Having made a surprise return to the Government in 2008 as the economic storm clouds broke, the peer set his sights on slashing policies unpopular with businesses struggling to survive the recession. Key among these was Ms Harman's plan to extend flexible working to 4.5 million parents with children under 16.

Few doubt that it is the Prime Minister whose hand it is firmly grasping the tiller of Government during the long summer recess. It was he who broke into his vacation to announce the successful conclusion of Operation Panther's Claw in Afghanistan. But with the Mandy-Hattie fault line now out in the open, it looks like being a long summer for the beleaguered PM.

Eyes on the throne? The two rival contenders

What's her nickname?

Hattie Harperson

How much does she hate the Prime Minister?

Never thought to be particularly close to Brown in the early years of their careers, Harman's victory in the deputy leadership race two years ago thrust the two together. Not friends socially beyond Westminster, they've made a good show of amicability.

How much power does she hold within the Party?

The most powerful woman now that Jacqui Smith, Hazel Blears, and Patricia Hewitt aren't on the scene. Harman is thought of as quietly effective and a useful electoral asset, given Brown's difficulty in connecting with women.

How likely to be PM?

Harman faces the fundamental problem of being a privately educated southerner, whereas many of Labour's core voters are working class and northern. She could spin this to her advantage, saying she is the only candidate who can connect with crucial swing voters in Middle England, and her impressive victory in the deputy leadership contest proves she knows how to campaign.

What's his nickname?

Mandy, Lord Rumba of Rio, the Prince of Darkness

How much does he hate the Prime Minister?

They're best frenemies all over again. Back in the Eighties, when Mandelson had a moustache, he was very close to Brown. They fell out when Mandelson backed Tony Blair for the Labour leadership in 1994. Brown last year brought Mandelson back from his job as trade commissioner in Brussels, knowing he was the Labour figure that the Tories most feared.

How much power does he wield within the Party?

More than any one else, including Gordon Brown – whom he saved after the disastrous local elections in June. He sits on 35 of the 43 Cabinet committees, acts as a conduit between the Blairite and Brownite factions, and was recently made First Secretary of State.

How likely is he to be PM?

For all that there are proposals to allow life peers to resign, it remains highly unlikely. Still a hugely divisive figure in the party, he would have to fight a by-election after an incumbent Labour MP stepped down, and given how bad the polls are for Labour he couldn't be guaranteed a big mandate. Plus the public are still sceptical of him.