Warning to Labour: don't take a third general election victory for granted

Mr Mandelson warned against surrendering to a malign coalition of the forces of the right and the 'oppositionist left'
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The Independent Online

Senator John Kerry's seemingly unstoppable progress towards the Democratic presidential nomination will not have taken the British government wholly by surprise.

For one thing, Gordon Brown - a perceptive student of US politics who unlike Tony Blair has met Kerry - was privately predicting it with some confidence way back last September when it was distinctly unfashionable to do so.

Secondly, the Democrat forces that have coalesced around Kerry cannot fail to resonate with the British governing party. In their own way, those forces represent a similar kind of triumph for pragmatism over sentiment to those that propelled Tony Blair to the leadership of the Labour Party nearly a decade ago. Kerry's single most important merit is his perceived capacity to beat the incumbent, just as Blair's was in 1994.

Only a fool, of course, would treat Kerry as the kind of shoo-in Blair had already looked to be well before 1997. Assuming the Massachusetts senator becomes the candidate, he could yet be crushed by the formidable Bush machine. But then Blair, assuming that he, too, lasts the course beyond what may be bad mid-term election results in June, isn't quite the shoo-in he was then, either. As of last night we have the word of Peter Mandelson, close Blair ally and member of New Labour's founding trio, for exactly that. No one, he said in his Progress annual lecture, should take a third general election victory for granted. And lest this merely be taken as an empty and fantastical threat, he went on to define "the bigger risk [that] we win, though without the full electoral mandate and the internal cohesion to ensure a bold third term".

The warning has a purpose, of course. Which is to focus party minds on the consequences of surrender to what Mandelson argued last night was a malign coalition between the forces of the right and those of the "oppositionist left" - a grouping he was careful to distinguish respectfully from the "legitimate left", including "principled opponents" of the war in Iraq, who in the end want a Labour government to succeed.

Trust, in other words, Mandelson was saying, was a problem for the party and not just the leader. And that the former has a duty to help the latter solve it. This is a controversial but not empty point. The lecture wholly eschews - for once - any aggravation of the tensions between Blair and Brown. But last week's Independent/NOP poll does not show that a Gordon Brown leadership would immediately transform his party's fortunes as polls showed Michael Heseltine under Thatcher or John Smith under Neil Kinnock would have done.

Although the lecture bears the sign of consultation with several in the Cabinet who agree with it, its authorship - and the uncompromisingly argued defence of the decision to go to war in Iraq - has an element of the "He would say that wouldn't he" about it. It might have made bigger headlines, for example, if it had been delivered by John Prescott, but is nevertheless food for thought at today's political Cabinet.

Owing to the inward-looking nature of the domestic political and media debate post-Hutton, it's easy to forget there is also an international context - not discussed in Mandelson's lecture but in which domestic mistrust risks the contamination of political decision-making. Europe is a case in point. Next week's Anglo-Franco-German summit in Berlin is an important event, a serious attempt to start healing the EU divisions over Iraq - on which President Chirac and Chancellor Schröder now appear rather more forgiving than some of their fellow opponents of war on the British Labour backbenches - and to provide some of the leadership in the EU lacking from the institutions themselves, most notably the Presidency of the Commission. It's also a convenient reminder that Blair is hardly alone in facing difficulties on his home turf. The crisis enveloping Chirac's ally and anointed heir Alain Juppé and Schröder's enforced divorce from the leadership of his own party have somewhat weakened the base of each.

Circumstances nevertheless make this nascent trilateralism - to which Blair rightly attaches considerable importance - of less certain short-term benefit for him personally than for his two counterparts.

Whereas the European stage is a natural resource for French and German politicians in difficulties, it can be less congenial for a British Prime Minister facing a Eurosceptic opposition and a rabidly hostile press.

The French and Germans cannot fail to want something in return for their invitation to join him in a nascent collective leadership, starting no doubt with help in persuading the Poles and Spaniards eventually to accept a compromise that would break the deadlock which has held up the enactment of a European constitution.

Blair still strongly believes a constitution - not least because of its capacity to put decision making in the hands of elected governments - is desirable. He faced down opposition - including from Jack Straw - to signing a ground-breaking EU deal on defence. But he still faces varying degrees of resistance from several of his Cabinet colleagues to compromises that might be needed to seal the constitution in the face of adamant Tory and press hostility.

For on several European issues, the Cabinet remains rather quarrelsome, and not always from the same side of the pro- and anti-European divide.

Yesterday's Commons exchanges triggered by Michael Howard's deliberate attempt to raise the temperature on immigration, for example, disguise a fierce row between David Blunkett, who is insisting that the Government should honour its promises to Eastern European countries by granting the right to work to their citizens from the moment of accession, and Jack Straw who is apparently harbouring growing doubts about the political saleability of such a policy when other countries, France and Germany included, are imposing transitional restrictions on such movement of labour.

The risk is that a battered Prime Minister might be tempted to yield to a press and Tory clamour for such restrictions to be imposed.

These issues are merely routine illustrations of the difficulties faced by a Prime Minister under fire, familiar from previous administrations like John Major's.

But then John Major had the smallest of majorities. One of Mandelson's points last night, freely translated, is that governing parties prepared to squander their large majorities to undermine their leader are sowing the seeds of their own destruction.

It is a sign of the depth of the difficulties the Government faces, because of the ferocity of the retrospective anger in the Parliamentary Labour Party over Iraq, that it's uncertain whether his warning will be heeded. Many MPs will no doubt resent the messenger as much as the message. But if the arguments, as distinct from the man making them, cannot convince them, it's difficult to see what now will.