Britain hits election season with a bang

Secretary for N. Ireland, architict of Labor success, quits as campaigns start

January 25, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - The election date isn't set, but it's beginning to look a lot like campaign season in Britain, with billboards going up, memos seeping out and a top government minister taken down.

Yesterday, Peter Mandelson, the Northern Ireland secretary and a leading architect of Prime Minister Tony Blair's "New" Labor government, resigned for the second time in a little more than two years.

In effect, Labor's master "spin doctor" was hung out to dry just as the political climate was heating up.

Mandelson was forced out amid revelations that he intervened over a British citizenship application by a wealthy Indian businessman who contributed to the yearlong Millennium Dome exhibition.

He denied acting improperly but said he should have provided clearer information on his role in the citizenship application of Srichand Hinduja.

After being turned down once previously, Hinduja received British citizenship. Blair ordered a review but said Mandelson had not sought to improperly influence the application process.

With a general election anticipated in May, Mandelson had apparently become a liability for Blair and Labor, a sentiment reinforced by banner newspaper headlines and nearly breathless televised reports of the controversy.

The resignation

Like a schoolboy being called to the principal's office, Mandelson was summoned to Blair's 10 Downing St. residence for talks. He emerged ashen-faced, announced his resignation had been offered and accepted, and in an uncharacteristic move went to the House of Commons to answer parliamentary questions as Northern Ireland secretary for the final time.

"I want to remove myself from the countless stories of controversy, feuds and division and all the rest," Mandelson said in a statement. "I want in other words to lead a more normal life, both in politics and, in the future, outside."

Still to be determined is what effect Mandelson's resignation will have in Northern Ireland, where political parties are working feverishly to keep alive a fitful peace process. His replacement is Scottish Secretary John Reid, 53.

Among those saluting Mandelson's efforts in Northern Ireland were Blair, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, the main Protestant party in the British province.

But British Conservative Party leader William Hague labeled Blair's "careerlong dependence" on Mandelson "a monumental error of judgment."

Meanwhile, the British media have been running leaked memos detailing some of Labor's alleged campaign strategy. With a double-digit lead in the polls and a 179-seat majority in the 659-seat House of Commons, few political analysts expect Labor to lose the election.

But with Mandelson apparently sidelined, the party has lost one of its prime image-makers. During the mid-1990s, Mandelson led Labor from the political wilderness by helping the party move from the far left to the center. He then masterminded the 1997 campaign that put Labor in power in a landslide triumph.

Adroit in public speeches and often arrogant in personal encounters, Mandelson was more often loathed than loved, even by Labor Party members, let alone Britain's often bitterly personal press corps.

From the day Labor took office, Mandy, as the press liked to dub him, was a marked man yet seemingly invincible because of his friendship with the boss, Blair.

Mandelson's first resignation from a government post, Trade secretary, occurred in December 1998 after it was revealed that he received a loan of about $500,000 from former minister Geoffrey Robinson to buy a townhouse in swanky Notting Hill.

Ten months later, Mandelson was back in government, replacing the once-popular Mo Mowlam as Northern Ireland secretary.

The passport application

The latest controversy concerns Mandelson's involvement with a British passport and citizenship application by Hinduja in June 1998. That same month, the Hinduja Foundation promised to underwrite the $1.4 million costs of the Faith Zone at the Millennium Dome, the yearlong, problem-plagued event that was overseen for a time by Mandelson.

When the story surfaced last weekend, Mandelson said a staff member had called government officials with an inquiry. Yesterday, he acknowledged that he had spoken with Mike O'Brien, an immigration minister in the Home Office.

Mandelson said, "I should have been clear that it was me personally, not my officials, who spoke to a Home Office minister." As a result, he said, "wrong information" was given to Parliament by Culture Secretary Chris Smith and to the press by the prime minister's spokesman, Alastair Campbell.

Mandelson said he hadn't sought to "influence the decision on naturalization" but to "pass on a request for information."

Hinduja backed Mandelson.

"I have never at any time linked our support for the Faith Zone of the Millennium Dome with our request to Mr. Mandelson for information," he said.

But it was too little, too late for Mandelson, whose resignation showed that in British politics, it's two strikes and you're out.

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