A reshuffle sounds like a conjuring trick. You think the deck is changed fundamentally from what it was before, but the dealer is still there and what matters is how he plays his hand rather than the cards he has chosen. The win is in the betting.
Peter Mandelson is back. Sent to Brussels (the political equivalent of Siberia) for misdemeanours that had him twice resigning from cabinet – once for accepting a cheap mortgage from a Minister that was under scrutiny of his department without declaring a possible conflict of interests; the second advocating citizenship for businessmen, under investigation by the Indian government, that had given money to the Millennium Dome that he was responsible for.
Mandelson, who will be promoted to the House of Lords as he is not an elected MP to be in the Cabinet, has said third time lucky on the announcement that he will be the Business Secretary.
Meanwhile Margaret Beckett, caretaker leader of the Labour Party when John Smith died before Tony Blair was elected and under him going as far as Foreign Secretary – not so much for her talents but because so far out of her depth she would probably agree with what Blair wanted – has sunk down to housing. Is this anything to do with lack of ego, or to stay in the Cabinet (as an attendee not Cabinet Secretary) no matter what is offered?
The same cannot be said of Des Browne. The former Defence Secretary and Scotland Secretary, he apparently turned down the job of Scotland and Northern Ireland Minister to resign from the cabinet. Not unreasonably, he had been against having another job eating into his time as Defence Secretary – surely the straightforward issues of Iraq and Afghanistan are enough without the complex cultural and logistical nightmare that is Scotland to contend with as well?
The new defense secretary John Hutton will at least not have Scotland on his plate. The army though were hoping for one Minister to stay around for continuity and planning purposes. With Des Browne calling for more resources for the armed forces – in particular calling for £500 million from reserve funds for 600 armoured vehicles – maybe the offered demotion was more about preventing future collateral damage to Gordon Brown. It will be interesting to see what Browne will say and Hutton will do in the coming months.
Or it could be that having three people called Brown in government would have been confusing. Nick Brown, a very personable former agricultural minister has returned to government as chief whip. The hapless Geoff Hoon having faced insurgents at Defense, and more recently in the Labour Party as Chief Whip has been moved to Transport. Both he and Beckett seem to be travelling in the same direction.
Ed Milliband heads the new department of climate and energy, while his brother David remains Foreign Secretary, despite seeming to want Gordon’s job (something that made A.C. Grayling excited because of his atheism). It seems that while he may want it in this life time it will be as a successor to Gordon rather than acting as Brutus.
Back to the Future
With Mandelson back, a key Blair ally, Brown is sending a fig leaf out to the Blairites in the Labour Party. Whether this will mean a change in direction for the party’s fortunes is another matter, but putting out the fires of rebellion in his party is a must for Brown’s authority, and to have a united party against the Conservatives at the next election that has to be held by 2010. With the economic outlook looking like it could last till for at least another year or so tough time are ahead for the country. An undermined Prime Minister would lack the authority necessary to lead in these troubled times.
However, Mandleson does pose risks as well. Having twice fallen from grace, there is nothing to suggest this will not happen again. This may be more about desperation than reconciliation. Having shuffled the deck and dealt, Brown has gone all in. This could make or break him.