on politicsMr Mandelson should get himself a proper portfolio

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The Independent Online
This column is not afraid to state the obvious, which is that we are in the middle of August, the height of the silly season. The origins of the phrase are well known to all students of the history of journalism. In this month Parliament had risen, the royal family had removed itself to Scotland, other rich and powerful persons had done likewise, being too sensible in those days to travel from a warm and sticky city to an even hotter and more uncomfortable Tuscany or French Riviera. The consequence was that there was "no one in London". The papers thought they had to make up stories, "stunts" as they were then called, to keep their readers happy.

At this point in one's exposition some earnest student will interject to say that the silly season is a myth because wars tend to start in August, other pieces of international unpleasantness to occur as well. This is true enough. But what we have not had until recently is a silly season of domestic politics. The political year ended in July, with a lot of bad temper at Westminster. The papers would write about the Princess of Wales, the Loch Ness monster, corn circles or whatever happened to take their fancy.

The politicians would then return for the party conferences, and the political year would begin again. It might turn out to be silly in its own right. But for two months of the year we were given a rest from politics. There was no John and Peter Show. The much loved act of Mandelson and Prescott was not topping the bill at the Millbank Empire.

From the politicians, there was relative silence. We did not bother them, and they did not bother us. The notion that the Minister without Portfolio should give a press conference in mid-August where he said that on the whole he was against sin and tended, by and large, to favour sunny weather would have appeared altogether bizarre.

At the same time the show has been diverting. There is no doubt about that. Mr Mandelson and Mr Prescott are in their way comedians of genius. They conform to the classic pattern. There is the tall thin one and the short fat one. "This is a fine mess you've got us into," one says to the other, before losing his trousers and being chased round the stage by Baroness Blackstone.

Mr Mandelson and Mr Prescott have their serious side as well. Each in his own way embodies the anxieties which trouble late 20th century man (or for that matter woman). What are we here for? What is our function? Do we really exist at all? They have brought these perplexities upon themselves by acquiring silly titles, presumably because they want them.

Thus Mr Prescott, besides being Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions, is also Deputy Prime Minister. This is an odd sort of post. It comes and it goes. Whenever someone is given it, Lord St John of Fawsley or another member of the closed shop of "constitutional experts" is wheeled on to our television screens to inform us that the title is unknown to the constitution.

"What do you want to be when you grow up, my boy?"

"A constitutional expert, sir."

"You need at least two A-levels for that."

When Sir Geoffrey Howe was given the job in 1989 as a consolation for losing the foreign secretaryship and its accompanying country house, Sir Bernard Ingham promptly explained that the title was meaningless. Lord Whitelaw had held it in 1983-88. He was a peer for the entire period. A peer, as the merest tyro of a constitutional expert will tell you, cannot become prime minister. Accordingly the title was indeed without meaning, for he would have been unable either to succeed Margaret Thatcher or even to deputise for her in the Commons.

C R Attlee was deputy prime minister to Winston Churchill in 1942-45. Mr Mandelson's grandfather, Herbert Morrison, certainly deputised for Attlee when he was out of the country but was never given the title. RA Butler held the position in 1962-63, but not when he was in fact running the country after Churchill's concealed stroke in 1953. Mr Michael Heseltine was given the position in 1995, some say (though I have never found any hard evidence for this) as a reward for getting his chums to vote for Mr John Major rather than Mr John Redwood in the unprecedented election which the then prime minister called to confirm himself in office. Today this strange position is held by Mr Prescott, though everyone knows that the number two in the Government is Mr Gordon Brown, which is not to say that Mr Brown would automatically become prime minister if the Downing Street bus were to do its deadly work.

There are those who believe, or say they believe, that the "real" number two is not Mr Brown but Mr Mandelson. He bears the title, even odder if anything than that of Deputy Prime Minister, of Minister without Portfolio. I have nothing against Mr Mandelson. Come to that, I have nothing specially for him either. I can take him or leave him. When we last talked, some time ago, he was saying: "At this stage of your career, your problem is..." At which point he discerned someone of more importance in the middle distance, or maybe he was spirited away by someone else. The precise details I have now forgotten. But I never discovered what my problem was.

His own problem is of more public interest. He is part of the Cabinet Office whose head is Mr Prescott. Nominally above him is Mr David Clark, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who is supposed to be in charge of the Freedom of Information Bill, does not seem to be making very rapid progress and is widely expected to depart in Mr Tony Blair's first reshuffle. Below Mr Mandelson in the Cabinet Office pecking order is Mr Peter Kilfoyle, the Under Secretary, Office of Public Service, an engaging Liverpudlian whose precise function escapes me. Mr Mandelson is accordingly a middle- ranking minister outside the Cabinet. Yet we all know that, whether he is the "real" number two or not, he is more than that. He has fingers in all sorts of pies, irons in countless fires.

His immediate predecessors in title were Mr Jeremy Hanley and, before him, Lord Young. But his real predecessor, both in title and in function, was Lord Deedes, who was in Harold Macmillan's and then in Alec Douglas- Home's Cabinet in 1962-64 as Minister of Government Propaganda, though of course it was not called that. When the Conservatives went out of office, the affable Bill Deedes, who is now head of our profession, returned to his old job as number two on the "Peterborough" column of the Daily Telegraph. I cannot see Mr Mandelson doing that.

Harold Wilson had denounced Lord Deedes's post as a scandalous misuse of public funds and promised not to re-establish it. Nor did he. Richard Crossman thought this a mistake - that a Deedes-like figure was exactly what the new Labour government needed. Indeed, unofficially he briefly experimented in the role himself, with no great success. Now we have Mr Mandelson, less clever but more feared than Crossman. I think it will be better all round if the lad gets himself a proper portfolio shortly after my return from the Liberal Democrat conference at Eastbourne, my next port of call.

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