Different elements of Gordon Brown's long-heralded cabinet reshuffle can be interpreted differently, but every aspect pales into insignificance beside the recall of Peter Mandelson. Forget the rarity of a country's EU commissioner leaving Brussels ahead of time; forget Mr Mandelson's lack of a parliamentary seat and need for an instant peerage. The salient point about Mr Mandelson's return is that it risks sending conflicting messages to the Labour Party and to the country.
For the party, the message is that Mr Brown is now running a national unity government, without – thank you very much – the help of David Cameron and his Conservatives. Mr Mandelson, who said as much in his statement outside No 10 yesterday, will no longer be scheming from across the Channel. He will furnish one-man proof that the Blairites are back on board and the New Labour project is not dead.
His return is also the most conclusive evidence so far that David Miliband's half-hearted leadership challenge has been thwarted and Gordon Brown's position is safe, at least for the time being. The combined challenge from Mr Cameron and the economic crisis were deemed so threatening as to require all hands on deck. It apparently convinced Mr Brown to extend the invitation to a man he finds devious and difficult, but who carries weight with the business sector, and it convinced Mr Mandelson to make common cause with his old foe.
Whether the rest of the country will interpret Mr Mandelson's return as a courageous move to help to save the state, however, is another matter. We rather suspect that other considerations will be uppermost, and we share them. Mr Mandelson has twice left office under a cloud. The second time, he was exonerated. But the first time, with the mortgage that he accepted from his wealthier junior colleague, then failed to declare to his main lender, Mr Mandelson could only plead guilty as charged.
That episode showed a wheeler-dealing mentality, a failure to appreciate a clearly unacceptable conflict of interest, and a cavalier disregard of proper ministerial conduct. The attitudes towards money and property this episode exposed, coupled with Mr Mandelson's talent for spinning and plotting, summed up some of the worst aspects of the Blair years.
That Mr Mandelson is now back suggests either desperation on Mr Brown's part, as he fears business confidence perhaps seeping to the Conservatives, or a miscalculation about the electoral effect of Mr Mandelson's reappearance. On taking office, Mr Brown successfully courted popularity as the "non-Blair". Now, after months of record low ratings, his increasingly sure-footed response to the financial crisis and a competent conference speech have helped him to narrow the gap with Mr Cameron. The new mood of seriousness, thrift and moral rectitude looked likely to benefit Mr Brown, in the short term at least. But Mr Mandelson's presence taints that message.
Some will argue that this might be a price worth paying for a show of government unity at a time when the economy looks so fragile. We doubt this. But the Mandelson factor could also reduce the benefit that accrues to Mr Brown from some of the less eye-catching, but perhaps more useful, cabinet changes made yesterday.
The departure of Des Browne from the Ministry of Defence was overdue. John Hutton should be an improvement here, and there is now once again a separate Secretary of State for Scotland; the military can no longer complain about having a part-time cabinet minister. No one matches Margaret Beckett for her calm ability to close down unwelcome controversy; the Government has missed her in recent months. And the creation of a new department of energy and climate, to be headed by Mr Brown's chief ally, Ed Miliband, is a welcome, if belated, recognition that the two subjects are intimately related and deserve their own department.
Stephen Carter's transfer from Downing Street to a ministerial job and the Lords effectively reverses an appointment that seemed to do more harm than good. Other organisational changes, such as the creation of a National Economic Council and the appointment of business "ambassadors", will prove their effectiveness – or not – in coming months. But they suggest that, as the economy dips closer to recession, business confidence is seen as the key political battleground, and one that Mr Brown will not abandon to the Conservatives without a fight.
If yesterday's reshuffle presages a return to lively politics, in which a government with a new sense of purpose faces a vigorous opposition, that will be all to the good. But in re-focusing on business, Mr Brown must not neglect the anxieties of ordinary voters in today's climate. The return of Peter Mandelson is unlikely to enhance everyone's peace of mind.Reuse content