A centrist drops off the edge

Mandelson: British Labor Party"s `dark prince' stumbles into one scandal too many.

January 31, 2001

TONY BLAIR'S ambition is to be the first British Labor Party prime minister to have two successive full terms, surpassing the efforts of Harold Wilson in the 1960s and 1970s to make it a normally ruling party.

To that end, Mr. Blair shook off the heritage of socialism and made Labor centrist, too much so for many of its loyalists.

His party rival is Gordon Brown, chancellor of the exchequer. His stalwart loyalist is Alastair Campbell, press secretary. His key adviser, the "dark prince" of centrism, has been Peter Mandelson, trendy grandson of an illustrious Labor politician.

Mr. Mandelson's support in 1994 made Mr. Blair the party's leader rather than Mr. Brown. Mr. Mandelson has championed making the next election about taking Britain into the European monetary union.

Mr. Blair was expected to call the election for May this year, rather than wait until 2002. Labor's popularity is dwindling, but the Conservative Party, which self-destructed in 1997, has not gotten its act together. The trouble for Mr. Blair is that everything is going wrong.

The latest thing to go wrong is Mr. Mandelson -- again. He resigned as trade and industry secretary in 1998, having taken a loan from a tycoon-politician his department was investigating. He bounced back the next year to become secretary for Northern Ireland.

Though ineffective in Ulster, as a deal-maker he seemed just right for the job.

But Mr. Mandelson was caught putting in a word for the citizenship application of an Indian billionaire who is in legal trouble in India and had made a generous donation to one of his pet projects, the ill-fated Millennium Dome.

That might not be fatal, except that Mr. Mandelson had told Mr. Campbell he had not personally done it. Downing Street then misled the press and Parliament.

These are no small offenses. Having to choose between Mr. Campbell and Mr. Mandelson, Mr. Blair dumped Mr. Mandelson again, apparently for good. Now Mr. Mandelson is gone, leaving Mr. Blair naked before enemies and rivals.

If only William Hague, the Conservative leader, were prime ministerial and ready. Too few Britons consider him either. Labor now looks beatable, but not by any party currently in view.

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