The Mandy revolt and a reshuffle that never was

Ministers appalled at prospect of Hartlepool MP returning to Cabinet stage a very British revolt and help send Blair's closest ally off to Brussels
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Indy Politics

Tony Blair is said to lead with a "presidential" style, but if he really were an all-powerful president, rather than first among equals in a Cabinet government, there would have been more drama last week than just the appointment of Peter Mandelson as our man in Brussels.

His original intention was not to send Mandelson across the North Sea at all. That role was earmarked for the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon. The party activists who assembled in Coventry this weekend would have met a new party chairman, in place of the small but much-liked figure of Ian McCartney.

Mr Mandelson, meanwhile, would be looking forward to resuming his old life as a Cabinet minister. The Hoon appointment should have been announced on Wednesday, as the opening move of a government reshuffle that would have made the top end of government visibly more "Blairite".

By Wednesday evening, there were signs that it was already happening. Alan Milburn, the former health secretary, was caught on camera dropping into Downing Street. Soon afterwards, David Miliband, the Schools minister much tipped for promotion, was seen running from the Department for Education towards Downing Street, having been summoned with such urgency that he did not have time to call for a car.

The logistics of a government reshuffle are complex. Cabinet ministers have to be consulted about possible changes to their teams, a careful tally has to be kept to make sure that the number of appointments has not slipped beyond agreed limits. The government drivers also have to be on standby, tipped off that they could be doing a lot of short runs to and from Downing Street. By Wednesday, they were hanging about expectantly.

Several advisers were also checking the rules that govern when the Government or the Speaker has the power to call a parliamentary by-election. This was due to happen in Ashfield, Mr Hoon's seat, where the Liberal Democrats came third in 2001 with a paltry 11 per cent of the vote. They were geared up for a contest in Hartlepool, where they start from a more promising 15 per cent and hold seats on the local council.

The writ for the Ashfield by-election was supposed to be moved on Thursday afternoon, so that Labour could avoid repeating the tactical error they made after the death in June 2003 of the Brent East MP, Paul Daisley. Then, out of consideration for his family, they delayed the by-election until September, giving the Liberal Democrats three months to build an organisation and pull off a sensational win. This time, the plan was to hold a by-election on 12 August, although no by-election has been held in August for as long as anyone can remember.

Tony Blair also wanted his monthly Downing Street press conference on Thursday morning to be free of questions about the Brussels appointment and the reshuffle, so the plan was to move the by-election writ early that afternoon, just hours before the Commons rose for the summer.

The whole plan started to go belly-up on Wednesday evening. And it was not just because of the controversy that follows Mr Mandelson everywhere he goes, though that was part of the problem. While some people in Mr Blair's own circle thought that bringing Mr Mandelson back, either now or after a general election, would be a good way of displaying the Prime Minister's authority, he was receiving heavy warnings from others, including John Prescott and Charles Clarke, to do no such thing. One Cabinet minister's political adviser said: "A lot of people were expressing concerns. In fact, can you name a Cabinet minister who would say it was a good idea?"

On Wednesday afternoon, Mr Blair had a one-to-one chat with Gordon Brown. Rumour has it that when the Chancellor was told he might be seeing Mr Mandelson again at the Cabinet table, he emitted a response that was more concise than it was polite.

Others say that there was no need for the Chancellor to intervene, because the reactions of Mr Prescott and others had already knocked this idea on the head, and that Mr Brown merely discussed the other ministerial changes.

One of the other changes on Mr Blair's list was to demote Ian McCartney, who was to have been given the job of Minister in the Cabinet Office, with the right to attend Cabinet meetings, but no longer a Cabinet minister.

Mr McCartney's failure, in the eyes of the Blairites, is that he is not the kind of all-purpose spokesman who can be sent out to handle every media storm. He is not, in other words, a good "minister for the Today programme".

On the other hand, he has a lifetime's experience of the Labour Party and the union movement. With relations between the movement and the Government already tense, Mr Prescott warned the Prime Minister in no uncertain terms that sacking Mr McCartney in the same week that he brought back Mr Mandelson would be a provocation too far.

Another problem was that Tessa Jowell, who was assumed to be Mr Blair's choice as Mr McCartney's replacement, was not keen to move when there is unfinished business at her department, including the Olympics bid and a Green Paper on the future of the BBC.

On Thursday morning, there came the final complication, when Peter Mandelson asked to be allowed to sleep on it before accepting the Brussels job.

A year ago, Mr Blair rushed ahead with a Cabinet reshuffle when time was short, and ended with a ghastly muddle when he announced that he was abolishing the post of Lord Chancellor, only to be told afterwards that he did not have the power to do so. The office was so ancient that it existed centuries before prime ministers did.

This time, he preferred to delay the whole reshuffle until the autumn.

The last chance to move a writ for a by-election before the summer had also slipped by, leaving the Government's business managers to ponder whether they could get the Speaker to do it for them while MPs were on holiday. This is permitted under certain conditions, laid down by law.

If Mr Mandelson had died, been declared bankrupt or taken a seat in the House of Lords, then a summer by-election would have been a possibility - but none of these options appealed to the future commissioner.

A summer by-election is still possible, because in Schedule One of the 1975 House of Commons Disqualification Act there is a long list of offices which an MP is not allowed to hold, and if Mr Mandelson were to accept any one of them, it could trigger an immediate by-election.

The positions range from becoming a judge or a BBC governor, to being appointed chairman of the Wine Standards Board of the Company of the Master, Wardens and Commonalty of Vintners of the City of London.

In reality, none of these is likely to take place. Instead, there will be two or three months' delay until Hartlepool's citizens choose their next MP, making Mr Mandelson's 14,571-vote majority look very vulnerable.