Recognising his government’s desperate situation, Gordon Brown has decided he needs someone in his Government with the similar political skills to Labour’s last election winner Tony Blair.
But Peter Mandelson is a totally different character to Blair – and more flawed. Mr Brown’s decision to recall the Trade Commissioner for a third bite at the apple after disgracing the Labour government twice already tells us something about the level of talent available to him in the Labour party.
Mandelson’s return seems to have been greeted with warmth from some sections of the business community, but they are deluding themselves if they think that a posturing Mr Mandelson can deliver for British business in reality. You only have to look at his record as EU Commissioner to see that. To his credit he appeared genuinely to believe in the merits of free trade – and he did on occasion stand up to the protectionist leaders of Europe – but he could never deliver.
His free trade moments only came ‘on occasion’ because there were also
plenty of times when he kowtowed to Italian cobblers, French plastic
bag manufacturers and subsidy-hungry continental farmers. Just this
week he renewed anti-dumping duties on shoes from China, which will
push up the prices for both retailers and consumers at this difficult
time. He even agreed to allow tariffs on energy-saving lightbulbs at
the behest of the one German company that had not outsourced production
to Asia – despite the EU’s environmental commitments.
The UK’s right to negotiate trade deals has been subsumed by the EU,
and the Trade Commissioner acts – with a pre-defined mandate from the
Council of Ministers – on behalf of all 27 countries. While we have
this situation where freer-trade nations such as the Britain and Sweden
can be held back by the most protectionist nations such as France, my
greatest concern is whether Mandelson’s replacement Baroness Ashton
will promote open trade.
Mandelson agreed to return to British politics just as the Doha
multilateral trade round is being read its last rites. In addition, the
EU is also struggling to sell its efforts to liberalise trade in poorer
countries, which are crucial for their development.
We are already entering a time of economic nationalism and we must hope
that the new Trade Commissioner is bold enough to resist the more
protectionist instincts of her fellow Commissioners and to make the
case for free trade. If she is, British consumers and businesses may
well then have reason to welcome the departure of Mandelson from the