Is the Home Secretary the big winner after two weeks of "grandstanding" by Harman and Mandelson? Here's today's Journal column
Last week, in the course of describing Peter Mandelson’s assumption of the reins of power in Whitehall, I made passing reference to talk of the former Hartlepool MP becoming Britain’s next Prime Minister.
At the time, the spate of “PM4PM” rumours doing the rounds struck me as no more than silly season tittle-tattle, and to be fair, the Business Secretary himself seemed keen to play them down.
But silly season or no, over the past seven days the story has both acquired ‘legs’ – as they say in the trade – and a fresh North-East dimension to boot.
According to at least two Sunday newspapers, a serious plot to install Lord Mandelson as Gordon Brown’s successor is already under way, with former Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong said to be playing a key role.
The plan, or so we are asked to believe, is for a leading Blairite Cabinet minister to stage what is being termed a “nuclear resignation” in the middle of Labour’s conference this autumn which would force Mr Brown out within hours.
Lord Mandelson would then take advantage of a new measure which became law this summer to allow life peers as well as hereditary peers to disclaim their titles.
At this point, Ms Armstrong, who has already announced she is standing down as MP for Durham North-West at the next election, would vacate her safe seat, allowing Mr Mandelson – as he would now be called - to stand in a by-election.
The one-time Prince of Darkness would then be duly returned to the Commons in good time to be installed as Labour leader and Prime Minister by Christmas.
Fanciful? Well, the fact that Peter Mandelson has even managed to get people talking about the idea of him as Prime Minister is surely proof that, in politics, nothing can ever be ruled out.
As the humourist and commentator Matthew Norman put it: “Even by the standards of Bob Monkhouse Syndrome, whereby the most reviled national characters inevitably come into vogue if they hang around long enough, this is some transformation.”
Either way, one politician who will have been looking somewhat askance at all this Mandy-mania is Harriet Harman, Labour’s nominal Number Two and Mr Brown’s official holiday stand-in.
She once again left us in no doubt this week that, if there were to be a vacancy at the top of the Labour Party in the near future, her hat remains very firmly in the ring.
First came her assertion that the party should never again be led by an all-male leadership team, on the grounds that men “cannot be left to run things on their own.”
Allied to this was the suggestion that men were effectively to blame for the recesssion, and that if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters we would not be in the mess we are in now.
There followed rumours of a spat with Justice Secretary Jack Straw and Home Secretary Alan Johnson, in which Ms Harman was said to have vetoed a review of rape laws because it did not go far enough.
Solicitor-General and Redcar MP Vera Baird attempted to pour oil on these troubled waters, but Ms Harman hit back again by telling Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour she would not “tippy-toe” around issues she believes in.
For Ms Harman, it’s a dangerous game. While few doubt that playing the ‘women’s card’ has got her a long way in the Labour Party, it has not always endeared her to the wider public.
Some elements of the party have been criticised in recent years for trying to re-launch the class war, but it has seemed at times this week as if Labour’s deputy is trying to start a gender war.
And if her pro-feminist agenda sometimes plays badly with floating voters in ‘Middle England,’ neither is it always overwhelmingly popular with Labour’s own core supporters.
Many Labour activists believe that all-women shortlists, for instance, have actually harmed equal opportunities by making it harder for black and Asian men to become Labour candidates.
What should Mr Brown make of all this “grandstanding?” Maybe he’s enjoying the spectacle of leadership wannabes vying for media attention as he himself takes a much-needed break.
Maybe there’s even an element of Machiavellianism in it, the kind of divide-and-rule strategy that his predecessor sometimes employed to good effect, setting Mr Brown, Robin Cook and John Prescott against eachother.
But while Mr Brown is undoubtedly devious enough to play such a game, he is not secure enough in his own job to be relaxed about such open jockeying for power among his subordinates.
If it carries on into the autumn, it risks the conference turning into a ‘beauty contest’ between the would-be successors, rather than the launch-pad for what would surely be the final Brown comeback bid.
But while Mandy and Harriet have been slugging it out across the airwaves and column inches over the past fortnight, one politician has been carefully staying out of the fray – Mr Johnson.
For all the bigging-up of Lord Mandelson over recent weeks, the Home Secretary is still the one the Tories most fear, the man whose common touch would instantly make David Cameron look like the privileged Old Etonian he is.
Mr Johnson has spent the last few weeks quietly liberalising the Home Office and neutralising ID cards as a potential election issue – both moves which will play well with Labour MPs in any contested leadership race.
Some will see his decision to lie low as evidence that he doesn’t really want the top job. But in so doing, perhaps he is showing the political astuteness which Harriet Harman so often lacks.