The real Prime Minister
Published in: Daily Mail
There has been a political coup. Not the one that everyone thought might happen last week until it became clear that the putative assassins had the courage of a blancmange.
No, the Prime Minister has instead been captured, imprisoned and forced to mouth the lines now being written for him by the man who is now effectively running the Government.
Step forward the real Prime Minister, Baron Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool, Business Secretary and now First Secretary of State and Lord President of the Council.
The irony is stupendous. Here is the previously regarded by Gordon Brown as his mortal enemy, forced twice to resign in disgrace from the Government -- and yet now the one person keeping Brown in Downing Street.
After James Purnell resigned his Cabinet post last Thursday night, it was Lord Mandelson who leapt into action, ringing other likely ministerial defectors to persuade them not to jump, too. If this hadn't been done and other ministers had followed Purnell, Brown would have been forced out.
Mandelson then helped work out the emergency reshuffle that kept the Prime Ministerial protege Ed Balls out of the Chancellorship, thus staving off even more high-profile resignations by ministers who detest him.
Now, Mandelson seems to be the only still point in the storm -- and the only one in command. He has simply taken charge.
All his authority spent, the Prime Minister presents a pitifully diminished and haggard figure, looking indeed as if he is on the verge of a complete breakdown.
The contrast with sleek, purring, self-assured Mandelson could not be greater. The collective collapse of confidence and self-belief now tearing the Labour Party apart is for lesser mortals, not him.
The way he languidly made mincemeat of a poorly briefed Andrew Marr on his BBC show yesterday demonstrated the combination of astuteness and sheer brazen absence of shame that makes Mandelson such a formidable player.
We don't know, of course, precisely what role he has been playing in these tumultuous events. Nor do we know who, if anyone, has been orchestrating the plotting.
We don't know whether James Purnell acted alone. What is clear, however, is that he was left high and dry when other potential rebels, such as David Miliband, Andy Burnham and Alan Johnson chose to remain in the Government.
Indeed, as coups go, this has been more Keystone Kops than Tonton Macoute. Clearly, when it comes to the resignation crunch, principle can't compete with the terror of losing a ministerial salary.
And anyway, why would any of the young pretenders to the throne want to become leader of a party going down to certain defeat?
As for the so-called WAGs -- Women Against Gordon -- who have staged serial resignations, this has achieved nothing except making a toe-curling spectacle of themselves. Caroline Flint on her own has set back the cause of women's equality by about a millennium.
First, she declared her loyal support for the Prime Minister. But the very next day, when she was not offered a Cabinet post, she stopped being loyal and staged a walkout as histrionic as it was self-serving.
She berated the Prime Minister for treating her as 'female window dressing'. Yet she had made herself into window-dressing by being photographed for a newspaper in vampish pose, for all the world as if she weren't the Europe Minister but model Christy Turlington. Then she whinges that women politicians aren't taken seriously!
Yesterday, she was at it again, claiming that women in the Cabinet were just 'a smokescreen' without real influence and that women constantly had to work to prove their worth.
But this isn't true for women in politics or anywhere else who have been appointed strictly on merit and just get on with the job. The fact is that many of the women MPs who have stood down were either second-rate or had their hands in the till -- or both.
All the WAGs have done is to highlight the downside of positive discrimination and show up the Blair Babes as being even more ridiculous than we thought they were.
It is the fact that there is no first-rate alternative leader of either sex that has really held back the plotters. David Miliband has been damaged goods since his 'banana moment' last year, when he was photographed holding the fruit; James Purnell is too young and callow; Alan Johnson is a creature of the trades unions.
Into this maelstrom of flailing ineptitude has descended Lord Mandelson to shore up the shattered Prime Minister, who, he has decided, is still the only man for the role.
The Shakespearean resonances are unavoidable, although it's unclear whether Gordon Brown is playing Macbeth, Julius Caesar or King Lear -- or a combination of all three.
But what is clear is that Lord Mandelson is directing the play and providing medical support for the principal actor to ensure that he continues to make it onto the stage.
Leaked emails that Mandelson sent more than a year ago to the former spin doctor turned psychotherapist Derek Draper merely confirm that the First Secretary holds the balance of power over the Prime Minister.
His assessment of Brown's weaknesses -- insecure, angry, uncomfortable in his own skin -- was written as if it were from one therapist to another discussing the best way to manage a disturbed patient for his own good.
Given his Blairite pedigree, he might himself have been expected to be orchestrating the revolt against Brown. But he fears the catastrophic result of an early General Election that would inevitably result from a new leader.
Others in the party argue that the defeat will be even worse next year if Brown remains. But Mandelson thinks the situation can still be retrieved.
And the reason is that now Gordon Brown is wrecked, the programme he will put forward will be Mandelson's.
He set it out yesterday. The expenses scandal would be cleaned up; the constitution would be reformed; the economy would be saved by his own business reforms; and in health and education, power would be transferred to parents and patients.
In other words, with the Blairite dauphins Miliband and Purnell out of the picture, it will be Mandelson himself who will drive forward a Blairite agenda, with Brown his helpless cipher. In this way, he thinks he can shoot David Cameron's fox and claw back Labour's chances at the next election.
Audacious, or what? The man hasn't even been elected to Parliament and yet he is now apparently masterminding the entire government agenda.
But Mandelson sees himself as the architect of New Labour, which he invented to rescue the party from oblivion. Now he is determined to save his creation. So democracy can go hang.
But will it work? Unlikely. How can the expenses scandal be redeemed when gross offenders such as the Chancellor and others are still in their posts? And as for devolving power in the public services, we've heard all that before.
Can anyone really see that chronic state control-freak, Children's Secretary Ed Balls, devolving power to parents?
For all his efforts, Mandelson may not save Brown either. Lord Falconer added to the pressure yesterday by calling for a debate over the leadership; tonight, the Parliamentary party might deliver the coup de grace.
But a new leader won't save them-- and neither will a propped-up Gordon Brown. It's the Labour Government that is the problem; and it's Labour, whether Lord Mandelson and the rest of them realise it or not, whose time is now up.