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Tuesday, June 15, 1999 Published at 12:18 GMT 13:18 UK

UK Politics

How Mandy might have done it

Peter Mandelson: King of the campaigns

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

It is the clearest possible sign of the post-Euro election panic which has gripped Labour that there is serious talk of Peter Mandelson being returned to the front line.

Tony Blair and others are said to be considering giving him a new job in charge of election campaigns, to replace Margaret Beckett who presided over the Euro disaster.

Just six months after he quit the Cabinet in disgrace over his secret £373,000 loan from colleague Geoffrey Robinson, it is seriously being suggested the Labour party cannot live without Mr Mandelson at the helm alongside the prime minister.

There is little doubt that Mr Mandelson - the king of campaigners - would have run a very different contest than Margaret Beckett.

For a start off, it would never have entered his head to take a break in the middle of the campaign, bank holiday or not, and he would have ensured no-one else did either.

He would have insisted that senior ministers such as the chancellor and the home secretary made some high-profile appearances instead of virtually disappearing.

And he would have co-ordinated a carefully targeted series of regional visits aimed at encouraging or even frightening Labour's core supporters into the polling booths.

Positive message

He would have ensured everyone sang from the same hymn sheet and, most importantly, he would have made sure a simple, positive message was hammered home day after day.

And this, of course, is where the problems would have started. Labour has no real idea what it wants its key message on Europe, and most importantly the single currency, to be.

The party is committed to holding a referendum on joining the euro soon after the next election "as long as the economic conditions are right" - in other words when the British economy has converged sufficiently with the other EU economies.

But as the campaign progressed and William Hague succeeded in making the single currency the central issue, so the policy came under severe strain.

There was a barrage of bad press as the anti-euro media laid into the government's policy and the currency continued to slide on the money markets.

The first signs began to emerge that Mr Blair was getting spooked when he appeared to suggest that the timetable for Britain joining the euro could slip until after the next election but one.

Peter Mandelson would have faced the problem of either trying to switch the central election issue away from the single currency - possibly in favour of a negative campaign aimed at exposing Tory splits and suggesting William Hague's team really wanted Britain out of the EU - or deciding that Labour had to campaign positively in favour of it.

A policy U-turn away from support for the euro would not only have run against his own beliefs but would have handed the Tories a major propaganda weapon.

Labour disaffection

A positive campaign in favour of the euro could have proved just as disastrous as the non-campaign run by Mrs Beckett as it is now clear there is a strong anti-single currency trend in Britain.

Mr Mandelson would also have been forced to address the problem of deep disaffection amongst many Labour supporters who, as minister Peter Hain recently confessed, believe they are being taken for granted by the government.

Few people are as qualified as Mr Mandelson to handle such a difficult campaign. But he has to be given the raw materials and that would have required some clear thinking and courage from Mr Blair himself.

There is little doubt that the prime minister encouraged, if not instigated, the low-key campaign in the belief Labour would glide to victory on the back of its popular support.

The last thing he wanted was to scare the horses with debates about the single currency. That handed the initiative to William Hague, who seized it with both hands.

Margaret Beckett does not deserve to be made the scapegoat for the humiliation which followed but almost certainly will be.

Whether that will open the way for a return for Mr Mandelson remains to be seen.

He is still widely disliked, even hated, on the Labour benches and any attempt by Mr Blair to bring him back now could meet fierce resistance from ministers like John Prescott and possibly even Gordon Brown.

But the fear of failure in the next general election, for which the campaign is already being planned, could be enough to persuade Mr Mandelson's enemies to swallow their bile and welcome him back.

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