The truth about Brown and Mandelson

Donald Macintyre: Their relationship has always been more complex than the caricatures suggest

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After the long forgotten Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election 13 years ago, Phil Woolas, then the runner-up, but now a minister, paid a memorable if ambiguous tribute to Peter Mandelson, who had been his minder and campaign organiser. "He may be a bastard," he told a crowd of supporters after the count. "But he's our bastard."

No doubt the best some of those around Gordon Brown can hope for, as they try to absorb the unprecedented second ministerial comeback of a man they have long regarded as an arch-enemy, is to try to think themselves into the Woolas mantra.

For Brown himself, it is paradoxically going to be rather easier. Not only because bringing Mandelson back helps to neutralise the Blairite threat to his premiership, or because it gives the reshuffle a spectacular aura of drama and boldness that it would otherwise have lacked, though both are true. But also because, incredible as it may seem, his personal relationship with Mandelson is currently, by all accounts, in rather good shape.

Even at its most gruesomely dysfunctional, the 20-year-plus connection between them has always been more complex anyway, and perhaps more enduring, than the caricatures have allowed. The rupture between them after Blair became leader with Mandelson's support was all the deeper precisely because Mandelson had looked up to Brown as the dominant figure of the founding triangle of New Labour that they formed with Tony Blair. And even amid all the dark feuding, there were occasional flashbacks, however brief, to the old alliance.

The first time Mandelson got into the Cabinet, in 1998, Brown greeted him after four years of bitter and well-chronicled estrangement, at his home in Westminster, with grace, a bottle of champagne and 45 minutes of serious conversation about how they could best work together.

Much more dramatically, on the day when he was losing that same job because his wantonly self-destructive and secret financial dependence on Geoffrey Robinson was leaked not by Brown, but by figures who owed their political allegiance to the then Chancellor, it was, remarkably, to Brown that he repeatedly turned to for good advice – and was given it.

Finally, in the past few politically difficult months for the premier, the two men have by all accounts talked frankly and frequently, exorcising in the process many of the demons that had haunted their relationship in the past 14 years or so. Indeed, Mandelson's return may in some ways be more difficult for the ultra-Blairites than the Brownites.

The latter group can at least take the view, as Lyndon Johnson did of J Edgar Hoover, that it is probably better to have one of the former's potentially troublesome protagonists "inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in". The less jaundiced may even recognise that the Government could actually now do with some of the international economic experience he has built up as EU Trade Commissioner. But for those Blairites whose irresistible Schadenfreude at Mr Brown's travails has been compounded by a sense that the time for one of their own had come again, Mandelson's comeback may seem at best bittersweet.

As a premier league reader of the political runes, even from Brussels, Mandelson may well have sensed that the Prime Minister's leadership has stabilised since the party conference and post-world economic crisis, and that a, say, Miliband leadership bid is now less likely to fly. Either way, his arrival helps to reinforce that stability for now. Mandelson has had his share of bad luck in the past; the foolishness which led to his second resignation, as Northern Ireland Secretary, was trivial compared to cause of the first one. (Though it is also a reminder of how great will be the media and opposition scrutiny of his every move now, compared with the relative freedom he has enjoyed at the Commission.) But he has also had some very good luck, culminating in yesterday's – from his point of view – well-timed return to British politics.

No one could have imagined, when he went off to Europe, that the side of the New Labour triangle that would be reconstituted would be Brown-Mandelson, with Tony Blair wholly absent. It's true that he once had a dream, during the early Blair years, that Brown had become Prime Minister and appointed him to the Cabinet. But in the dream it was as Welsh Secretary. Instead, he has a good job – the same essentially as his first in the Cabinet, the one he was unable to finish, and one for which his experience in Europe amply fits him. It's also unlikely that the world trade deal which he struggled to achieve and might have crowned his service at the commission is going to be possible, thanks to the US election.

By temperament, and heritage, Mandelson has always been viscerally interested in Labour as a party of government, and if nothing else he will bring to the Government a sharp hunger to stay in power.

If Labour were to confound assumptions and win the next election, he might after all succeed to the one job his grandfather, Herbert Morrison, generally failed at and which he confided to a friend while still at Oxford he really wanted – that of Foreign Secretary. But even if it loses, he now stands, quite unexpectedly and no doubt to the chagrin of many on the left, a good chance of being a serious figure in the post-electoral debate on where the party goes in opposition.

Yes, it would be foolish to predict with certainty that even the older and wiser Mandelson will not combust for a third time under the spotlight to which he will now be subjected. But for now "our bastard" is back. Again. n

Donald Macintyre is author of 'Mandelson and the Making of New Labour', published by HarperCollins

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