Friday, 3 October 2008

Mandelson's return

Reshuffles are easily overrated. They don't make that much difference to the position of governments. So everybody in Westminster has been expecting a workmanlike and sensibly boring reshuffle to deal with Ruth Kelly's decision to depart as Transport Secretary.

The return to Cabinet for a third time of Peter Mandelson has taken everybody by surprise.There will be much discussion about what a Brown-Mandelson rapprochement means for Labour's future direction. (It was Gordon Brown who recruited Peter Mandelson to the Labour party, but the 1994 leadership contest famously led to a significant breach between two of the main co-founders of New Labour). if reports of a government job for Jon Cruddas are accurate, this could be a clear sign of an intention to run a broad government which rebuts the idea that Labour politics is descending into factional strife.

But perhaps the greatest impact could be on the government's approach to Europe. Mandelson's return brings back a heavyweight voice to a Labour Cabinet which contains relatively few high profile pro-Europeans.

Gordon Brown has a reputation as rather more agnostic and sceptical about Europe than his predecessor. However, his government has been rather more engaged in seeking a stronger EU response to the financial crisis and to a 'new multilateralism' in international relations than many in Europe anticipated.

With David Miliband, as Foreign Secretary, Mandelson's return could lead to a greater public focus on one of the clearer dividing lines between the two major parties. David Miliband again told the Fabian fringe in Manchester (video) that, while Europe is seen as a tactical advantage for the Conservatives, but is also a strategic weakness for them.

I was about to say that none of the many predictions about the reshuffle saw the Mandelson return coming. However, James MacIntyre came close to doing so in his extremely well timed New Statesman interview, published yesterday.

Some ministers - especially those close to David Miliband, whose speech he watched from the front row after being excitedly greeted by a party steward - talk of a return to government for Mandelson. To others, the idea is absurd. But every previous former EU commissioner has been appointed to the Lords, and it is common for ministers and shadow ministers to be appointed from the Upper House.

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