Lord Mandelson: Whitehall's Emperor, or just a team player?

He faced a barrage of questions from MPs given a rare chance to discover more about his job

He has accumulated a 36-word title, a coterie of 10 loyal ministers at his beck and call, and a department that has ballooned into one of the biggest ever seen in Whitehall. But Lord Mandelson has defended the formidable empire he has built since playing a key role in preventing the toppling of his former political rival, Gordon Brown.

After being handed a swathe of new responsibilities at last month's reshuffle, the newly installed First Secretary of State was confronted yesterday over how he found the time to do justice to his vast array of responsibilities as well as clinging to the notorious influence he now wields over the man who brought him back to the front line of British politics.

Appearing before the Commons Business Committee, Lord Mandelson denied claims that the department had been set up solely around "one man's ambitions", explaining that his newly formed Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was charting the country's route out of recession and ensuring Britain's industry could compete in the future.

"Any future government should see the sense of bringing these responsibilities and areas of policies together under one roof," he said. "The aim of the department is very simple – to help the UK to excel and thrive in the future world economy."

Lord Mandelson's new-look section has seen an entire Whitehall department swallowed up into his territory. The decision to place the former Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills under Lord Mandelson's control was a genuine surprise to many ministers during Mr Brown's emergency reshuffle last month.

Many suspect that the department will not survive beyond Lord Mandelson's tenure at its helm, believing it was invented to give him the gravitas that properly reflected the central role he now has in directing government policy.

Lord Mandelson was challenged yesterday about his sway in Downing Street, with Peter Luff, the chairman of the committee, asking him whether he was "this Prime Minister's Willie?"

Judging by the guffaws that rang out, the reference to Margaret Thatcher's deputy, Willie Whitelaw, and her famous comment that "every prime minister needs a Willie", was not lost on the committee. Nor did it fall short for the Business Secretary, who replied: "I am tempted to extend that metaphor, but decorum..."

He also said the position of deputy was not unusual. "I am not the first to be playing the role," he said, arguing that the same work had been done by Rab Butler and Harold Macmillan in days gone by for the Tories.

But it is no secret that it was Lord Mandelson who played a key role in persuading ministers to hold firm behind Mr Brown when he looked likely to be toppled as Labour's leader. He has been amply rewarded.

After his new appointment, the shadow Business Secretary, Ken Clarke, was quick to point out to the new First Secretary of State that his remit now stretched from "space to defence sales to universities and further education".

While he admitted yesterday to spending a fifth of his time "supporting the Prime Minister and Government" with duties, many suspect Lord Mandelson's opinion is sought on a far more regular basis. Mr Brown's long working days will often see his right-hand man summoned by telephone at first light. The shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has accused him of becoming the most powerful unelected figure since Cardinal Wolsey's power of the mind of Henry VIII. It has led to fears that crucial areas of the Government's work could be sidelined as a result of Lord Mandelson's role in keeping Mr Brown's leadership afloat.

The lack of accountability of Lord Mandelson's department was also raised yesterday, with five Lords now among his 10 ministers. His acolytes also give him a hefty presence around the Cabinet table, with three of his team able to attend the meetings when their topics are due to be discussed.

He is also plugged into Mr Brown in more ways than one. Though he spends more time than he would like to admit with the Prime Minister, dealing with the daily traumas of life at No 10, ministers such as Baroness Vadera and Lord Davies, both under his charge, also have the Prime Minister's ear.

For Lord Mandelson, a man seemingly running out of time in power as Labour look set for election defeat, his elevation to the de facto deputy leader has allowed him to fulfil at least part of his ambitions to emulate the achievements of his grandfather, Herbert Morrison. It appears that his ultimate goal of matching his grandfather's rise to Foreign Secretary will end in frustration, as the Prime Minister simply could not do without him close at hand.

But the labours of the Rt Hon Lord Mandelson of Foy in the County of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the County of Durham, First Secretary of State, Secretary of Business, Innovation and Skills and Lord President of the Council, are far from over.

Indeed, his most difficult job is yet to come. Talk has already begun on the Labour benches of a further attempt to oust Mr Brown in the autumn, around the time of the Labour Party conference. If the expected assault materialises, it will again be up to Lord Mandelson to lead the defensive blitz, and ensure that the man he once plotted against is still in his place to fight an election.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appeal
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly finalists Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge
tvLive: Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge face-off in the final
Sport
Ched Evans in action for Sheffield United in 2012
footballRonnie Moore says 'he's served his time and the boy wants to play football'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture