U.K. Premier's Former Rival Plans Labour Strategy

Peter Mandelson has rebounded from political exile twice in the past 12 years to claim a powerful place among the elite of Britain's ruling Labour Party. Now, Lord Mandelson is taking on what may be an even more daunting turnaround mission: saving the political life of his onetime rival, Prime Minister Gordon Brown.Lord Mandelson, the head of the U.K. government's business ministry, has emerged in recent months as Mr. Brown's top political operative -- a role that will thrust him into the spotlight this week as the Labour Party holds its annual conference in Brighton, England, the last such party gathering before a general election that must be called by June.

It's a daunting challenge: The opposition Conservative Party is ahead in opinion polls by as much as 17 percentage points; the economy is in recession; the country is mired in record debt; and Mr. Brown's party is troubled by internal strife.

Yet despite the economic problems that have befallen the U.K., and the world, Lord Mandelson plans to place the economy at the heart of the campaign -- and claim that moves made by Mr. Brown and his government averted greater disaster and stabilized the financial sector. "The battleground in the election will be fought on the economy," he said in an interview. This week in Brighton, the party will "bark back and fight back."

He acknowledges that Labour is the underdog in the coming election, though he complains that much of the U.K. media have tried to "decide the outcome of the next general election over the head of the British people by assuming that the result is a foregone conclusion." Few in Britain know more about political resurrection than Lord Mandelson. Once dubbed "The Prince of Darkness" -- a moniker hung on him by satirical magazine Private Eye but soon adopted by others -- he has repeatedly returned to power after being written off by the political intelligentsia.

"There hasn't been a British political comeback like Mandelson since Winston Churchill," says Rodney Barker, professor of government at the London School of Economics. Churchill made major mistakes as a minister during World War I, changed parties twice and spent a period in the political wilderness before bouncing back to head the government during World War II.

Alongside former Prime Minister Tony Blair and Mr. Brown, Lord Mandelson is credited with transforming Labour from an unelectable party rooted in doctrines of state intervention into the free-market-friendly "New Labour" that has enjoyed over a decade of power.

It wasn't a smooth ride. In the early 1990s, Lord Mandelson allied himself with Mr. Blair, opening a high-profile feud with Mr. Brown. A year after Labour came to power in 1997, Lord Mandelson was forced to resign as a government minister after taking an interest-free housing loan from fellow Labour member Geoffrey Robinson, whose business dealings were subject to an inquiry by Lord Mandelson's then-department.

Within 10 months, he was a minister again. Two years after that, in 2001, he resigned once more after making phone calls on behalf of an Indian businessman requesting U.K. citizenship. Independent inquiries cleared him of wrongdoing, but the scandals tarnished his political reputation, and fresh controversies over Lord Mandelson's connections with rich businessmen continue to plague him.

Nonetheless, Lord Mandelson has bounced back yet again. At the height of the financial crisis and internal party strife last October, Mr. Brown surprised everyone -- including Lord Mandelson -- by asking his onetime rival to leave his post as the European Union's top trade official and head the U.K.'s business department. A Cabinet minister who declined to be named said it took no time for Lord Mandelson to display "an astonishing ability to reassert his authority" at the Cabinet table.

Last June, a rising government minister named James Purnell embarrassed Mr. Brown by calling for the prime minister to resign, just as polls closed in U.K. local elections. The move appeared to top off a rebellion from a group of Labour ministers that, momentarily, looked like it might topple Mr. Brown. Within minutes, Lord Mandelson launched a furious round of intraparty lobbying that helped stave off further defections and tamp the uprising.

Lord Mandelson was rewarded with two new designations, first secretary of state and lord president of the council, and an expanded business ministry. The British press, meanwhile, awarded him a new title: deputy prime minister.

Now, Lord Mandelson is at the heart of all strategy, and one of the most regular visitors to Downing Street, people familiar with the matter say. Even some on Labour's left have warmed to Lord Mandelson, a man they had seen as pushing what they saw as the party's rightward drift and obsession with "spin."

"When he came back, you could see how rattled the Tories were, and I thought, 'they must dislike him even more than me,'" said Ronnie Campbell, a veteran left-wing Labour member of Parliament who called Lord Mandelson an effective politician who will help Labour fight for the election.

Still, his plan to sell off part of the state-owned Royal Mail was widely attacked by the left of his own party and has been postponed. He also faces a resurgent Conservative Party led by media-savvy David Cameron.

Lord Mandelson says Labour needs to hone its campaigning skills. "As the election draws nearer we have to rebalance our focus and energy and devote more time and effort to getting our arguments across and challenging our political opponents," he said, a message he will deliver in his conference speech Monday.

Labour will talk up its "successes" in rescuing Britain's battered banks and "preventing recession turning into depression" and will contrast what it believes will be indiscriminate budget cuts from the Conservatives against targeted cuts that preserve front line public services, he says.

Mr. Brown and Lord Mandelson's problem, in part, is that it may be difficult to engage in this debate without acknowledging that the policies they made helped lead to it, some analysts say.

"In the absence of a more compelling vision, voters will conclude that Labour has run out of ideas. Even many Labour sympathizers have come to that conclusion," said David Clark, a former senior adviser to the Labour government. "And that even the Prince of Darkness has so far failed to address."


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