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Politics of the Media: The prince of darkness or the court jester?

LONDON - Whatever you think of Peter Mandelson, and lots of Labour MPs and scribes don't think very much, he's actually brought some fun back into politics.

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The one-time non-executive director of Clenmow Hornby Inge has been away in Brussels, winning mixed notices as the European trade commissioner.

But Gordon Brown's surprise decision to recall him to the cabinet (he's twice been forced to resign) took all the papers by surprise, with one intriguing exception.

That was the Daily Mail which had a story on its website last Friday morning in advance of the announcement from Number 10. Even the Mail wasn't entirely sure, some cautious soul inserting a question mark in the headline.

The Mail has recently renewed its guarded support for Brown, although editor Paul Dacre is seemingly happy to allow his columnists, led by Peter McKay and Richard Littlejohn, to savage him at will.

In part this is a response to the dire economic outlook, the Mail (or some bits of it) evidently buys the tale that old hand Brown is the best person to steer us through.

In part also it's probably a response to the attempted putsch by the Guardianistas. David Milliband's celebrated "we must do better" article in July was followed by some rather excitable columns by former Brown admirers Polly Toynbee and Jackie Ashley in which they called for Brown's head as punishment for letting everyone (chiefly them it appeared) down.

Mandelson, were he asked his opinion by Brown in one of their telephone chats over the summer holidays (which he almost certainly was) would have replied that the Mail mattered more than the Guardian although the Guardian too needed to be persuaded back into line.

In the short term the Guardian was busily stoking rebellion and Mandelson has always been willing to tell anyone who cared to listen how to stem this, revert to Blairism and New Labour. He said exactly that recently in the New Statesman.

Which is exactly what Brown has done by bringing Mandelson, as business secretary, back into the cabinet.

The Blairites can hardly foment rebellion with two of the three founders of New Labour in government and with its chief handmaiden Alastair Campbell spinnin' away on the sidelines.
But where Mandy goes mischief is never very far behind.

Also this week we've seen the departure of former Brunswick boss Stephen Carter to the Lords as minister for communications (and broadcasting and technology according to some reports although I can't see culture secretary Andy Burnham being very pleased about that), suggesting that Mandy is going to be calling the shots as Labour tries to deal with the economic crisis and prepare for the next election.

Brown in his element at the moment, summiteering away and telling other countries what to do. But what he's bad at is responding quickly and effectively to the day-to-day slings and arrows of politics.

This was arguably Mandelson's chief contribution to Labour's series of election wins, the art of the instant rebuttal, otherwise known as getting your retaliation in first.

In this process the messenger was usually the ferocious Campbell. Brown has also sidelined his equally ferocious but far less deft spinmeister  Damian McBride. Could Campbell come back officially for one last hurrah?

All this is a salutary reminder to the so-called marketing professionals, headed by Carter and WPP's David Muir (still there although No 10 is evidently unamused by his former boss Sir Martin Sorrell's decision to relocate to the emerald isle) to the effect that politics is most effectively, and ruthlessly, run by politicians.

Oddly this is what has proved Mandelson's undoing in the past.

He has no great hinterland as a party man despite his granddad being Labour grandee Herbert Morrison (he was plucked from London Weekend Television as director of communications) and has been found out when storms have broken around him (the mortgage loan from Geoffrey Robinson MP and a fluffed-up passport application "scandal").

Clever communicator he may be but, in the past anyway, he never understood how something that wouldn't raise an eyebrow at a posh London dinner party could turn out to be political suicide.

If he manages to stay out of trouble between now and 2010 (not a certainty given his legions of enemies in politics and the media) he will certainly help to make Labour more competitive as well as combative.

And bring some entertainment back to the business of politics, which, with Brown lurching haplessly from one beating to another, was beginning to look like a rather unappealing and direly predictable blood sport.

Politics of the media is a regular series of opinion pieces for Brand Republic about the way media shapes politics and vice-versa. Stephen Foster is a partner at The Editorial Partnership and can be contacted at:steve-edco@blueyonder.co.uk.

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