A soothsayer's riddles are never easy to read

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The former Northern Ireland Secretary and MP for Hartlepool knows all about the value of words, which is why his every utterance is parsed as though it had arrived by messenger from the ancient oracle at Delphi. So when Peter Mandelson says - as he does in an interview to be broadcast this week - that Gordon Brown is a "a big politician with very big ideas ... and has many more big ideas in him", we prick up our ears.

The former Northern Ireland Secretary and MP for Hartlepool knows all about the value of words, which is why his every utterance is parsed as though it had arrived by messenger from the ancient oracle at Delphi. So when Peter Mandelson says - as he does in an interview to be broadcast this week - that Gordon Brown is a "a big politician with very big ideas ... and has many more big ideas in him", we prick up our ears.

And when, at a time of rife speculation about the Labour leadership, he also says that he thinks Gordon Brown will be Tony Blair's "New Labour successor", we naturally ask ourselves whether this is really what he means. That his interviewer was the former Downing Street spinmeister, Alastair Campbell, suggests that the question is doubly worth asking.

On the face of it, Mr Mandelson might seem to be shifting his loyalty from Mr Blair to Mr Brown - a noteworthy and perhaps well-timed move to distance himself from a weakening Prime Minister. But is his praise of the Chancellor a means of ingratiating himself with the Brown camp, or was he sent by No 10 to mediate in the latest spat between neighbours? A truly Delphic interpretation could be that, by appearing to associate himself with the Chancellor, Mr Mandelson is deliberately setting out to scotch Mr Brown's chances of ever taking over at No 10. After all, Mr Brown's attraction to many has been his bluff, Old Labour grittiness. Embrace by the smooth New Labour Europhile might be exactly what his leadership ambitions do not need.

A close reading of Mr Mandelson's prophecy leaves another riddle. Mr Brown will be the successor, he thinks, "when Tony Blair chooses to stand down as Prime Minister, or is not elected by the public". If Mr Mandelson is still the staunch Blairite he has long been, he could simply have found a politely convoluted way of saying "never".

With the same words, Mr Mandelson could be boosting or thwarting the Chancellor's ambitions. He could be forecasting Mr Brown's promotion for this year, next year, sometime or never. Such is the Mandelsonian wizardry, so fevered are the political times, that we prefer to offer no definitive interpretation at all.

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