Aide's Ouster Won't Spoil Blair's Reelection Parade

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Tony Blair's closest political ally, Peter Mandelson, has been forced for a second time to resign from Blair's cabinet under the cloud of scandal. How badly will this hurt Blair as Britain prepares for election in the spring?

Obviously the resignation of Blair's best-known intimate can't be good for the prime minister. And Mandelson, of course, was at the center of planning the reelection campaign and keeping the government on message. But Labor remains 10 or 15 points ahead in the polls, and this is unlikely to affect the outcome of the election. In fact, one of the charges against Labor that sometimes sticks in the minds of voters is that the party is arrogant and a little sleazy, so by decisively firing Mandelson, Blair could actually improve his own image. And it stops the bleeding on what would have remained a seeping wound.

What is Mandelson alleged to have done?

If you look at what Mandelson did [making calls to a government department on behalf of a citizenship applicant who had made a large donation to a pet project of the Labor government], it doesn't appear to be obvious influence-peddling. On the other hand, he wouldn't have made that phone call for just anybody. But the important thing is that he misled his colleagues, whether deliberately or inadvertently. And he didn't follow the advice he always gives others, which is to get all your facts lined up before going to press. In fact he infuriated Blair and other cabinet ministers by misleading them and making them look stupid.

As Northern Ireland secretary, Mandelson was responsible for overseeing the troubled region's peace process. How will his resignation affect Northern Ireland?

He'd probably already reached the end of his usefulness to Blair in Northern Ireland. He was brought back into government to manage the peace process after Blair dropped Mo Mowlam as Northern Ireland secretary. But Mandelson eventually ran into the same problems as Mowlam: She was regarded with suspicion by the loyalists, who began to bypass her and go directly to Blair. With Mandelson, it was the Republicans who lost confidence, but the result was the same — Blair ended up having to do all the heavy lifting himself. So Mandelson's resignation is not a loss to Northern Ireland peace process.

This is the second time Mandelson has had to quit Blair's cabinet...

And in almost identical circumstances. Last time, it involved a personal loan he'd made, and it wasn't the loan itself but the fact that he didn't tell anyone and had appeared to lie about it when first challenged that proved his undoing. This time, too, if he'd answered frankly when first confronted, his actions might have looked a little unseemly but they probably would not have forced his resignation. By not leveling with the public right away, he sealed his fate.

So why is Labor so far ahead in the polls?

Because the economy is great — never better, according to some. Public finances are in great shape, the government has a big surplus, growth is high and there's no sign of inflation. Conservative Party leader William Hague has not caught the country's imagination. They've got some pet issues, such as rising crime and opposition to Britain adopting Euro. But the government is not giving them very much of a target. There may be a lower turnout in this election, and Blair's margin of victory may be smaller in light of creeping disillusion among many voters who voted him in last time, but things are still well enough in Britain to give Blair a comfortable victory.