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Sunday 11 April 2010

Ain't nothing like an internecine war to liven things up

The faction fighting and personality clashes make this a fascinating campaign, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

I WOKE to the BBC's Today programme on Friday to hear Brian Lenihan being interviewed respectfully by Stephanie Flanders, the BBC Economics Editor who usually consumes her politicians lightly poached.

The perception among the political and commenting classes in London is that the Irish Government has had the guts to deal with the economic crisis in a way that should be an example to every other debt-ridden country. So that's something to reflect on complacently. However bad things seem, outside Ireland we look pretty damned impressive compared to the Greeks.

The UK General Election happens on May 6, a choice of date by Prime Minister Gordon Brown which has caused some amusement because it is Tony Blair's birthday. Prime ministers and finance ministers rarely get on well for long, for the one wants to spend and the other has control of the national wallet, but what went on in Downing Street between Blair and Brown for 10 years, until Blair was driven out, was extraordinary.

Blair, who hated confrontation, was baulked at every turn in his attempts to reform the public services and much else by the glowering presence in Number 11, who from time to time erupted into Number 10, roaring and swearing and demanding his job.

And then, when Brown got it, he didn't know what to do with it, for he is a tactician, not a strategist. And most of his tactics are devoted to doing down his political enemies. In his years in Scottish Labour, he was taught that you don't just defeat your enemies, you destroy them.

Two enemies Brown failed to destroy were Blair and Mandelson. A sun-kissed Blair --who made a lightning visit to make an insincere speech in support of Brown -- has an agreeable life abroad being fawned-over and enriched, while Mandelson, forced out of the Cabinet twice, came back from Brussels to save Brown and the Labour Party, partly from tribal loyalty and partly to show that he could.

As a spin doctor, he was one of the most hated people in politics: Blair famously said that the New Labour project would be complete only when the party learned to love Mandelson. Well, bizarrely, not only does Labour now cherish Lord Mandelson, the prime minister's deputy in all but name, as its saviour, but his intelligence, super-competence, wit and capacity to surprise is fast making him a national treasure. "A cat swishing its tail" is how a sketch-writer described him, and as we all know, you can't be sure which way a cat will jump.

Knowing that the Tories' strongest card is that no one wants Brown for another five years, it was Mandelson who suggested softly on radio that Brown might not wish to stay for another whole parliament. Even though Brown has denied this, the subliminal message Mandelson is sending is that he will ensure if necessary that the next anti-Brown coup works.

There is a bitter internecine war going on under the radar. As MPs stand down, factions in Labour HQ are forcing candidates on constituencies. The Unite trade union -- which has bankrolled Labour to the tune of £11m in just the last two years -- is finding safe seats for Old Labour class warriors, while Mandelson is inserting New Labour types such as Tristan Hunt, a TV celeb historian.

Brown's belligerent, foul-mouthed intimate, Charlie Whelan, is political director of Unite. But although Mandelson can't get rid of Whelan, who masterminded his first downfall and whom Mandelson then had sacked as Brown's spokesman, he's managed to keep him out of the centre of the campaign.

Brown's astute and ambitious wife, Sarah, a public relations professional, struggles to present her husband as a normal human being. No one doubts his industry or his desire to make the world better for everyone except Old Etonians, but his refusal to listen to anyone who doesn't agree with him has led to countless bad decisions as chancellor and prime minister. At the moment, for instance, the Tories are making electoral mileage out of an increase in levies on employers that they -- and business leaders -- describe as a jobs tax. The Treasury, Mandelson and Alastair Darling, the sensible Chancellor, had argued for a Vat rise instead, but were overridden by Brown.

Brown dislikes questions unless they are of the "Tell me, Prime Minister, what are your proudest achievements?" variety. "Why did you mess up banking regulation/sell gold at a loss/raid the pension schemes/encourage crazy borrowing/fail to provide the troops with the right equipment/allow untrammelled immigration/?" meet with outright denials and side-stepping into answers to the questions he wants, which take the form of what is known as "usual Gordon tractor production statistics".

Statistics apart, the personality clashes are fabulous, the contest is tight and it's shaping up to be a fascinating election.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards