Given that many of his colleagues have not exactly been a model of loyalty, can the British Prime Minister really be blamed if he doesn’t trust anyone?

In case nobody has noticed, Prime Minister Gordon Brown is on holiday and, in his absence, Downing Street is following a revolving-doors policy with four senior cabinet ministers taking turns to stand in for the boss.

Critics say that Mr. Brown’s choice of a feuding quartet (Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman, Business Secretary Peter Mandelson, Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling and Justice Secretary Jack Straw) to mind the store in the holiday pe riod instead of entrusting the job to one person as his predecessor Tony Blair used to do has nothing to do with any notion of a more collegial arrangement. Far from it.

Rather it is said to have been prompted by a deep-seated insecurity: a fear that an official Number Two, with his/her own leadership ambitions, posed a more real threat to his leadership than four squabbling colleagues divided by their own rivalries.

Indeed, there was much speculation that Mr. Brown was not keen on taking a holiday at all. At a press conference, a foreign journalist asked him whether this was because he didn’t trust his colleagues and feared that they would take his job while he was away. While Mr. Brown dismissed the question with a laugh, it is no secret that he feels deeply insecure. And given that many of his colleagues have not exactly been a model of loyalty can he really be blamed if he doesn’t trust anyone?

So, how has Downing Street be coping in his absence?

The first week, managed by Ms Harman, was tailored-made for a media struggling to fill newspaper pages and air-time in this silly season. Ms Harman, who famously described herself as “no shrinking violet,” used the occasion to do what she does best: plugging her “vision” of a just, fair, and woman-friendly society with headline-grabbing quotes such as the one about the “Lehman Sisters.” Blaming the economic crisis on the male domination of key jobs in banks, she declared that had the U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers been run by women it would have still been in business.

“Somebody did say ... that if it had been Lehman Sisters, rather than Lehman Brothers, then there may not have been as much (turmoil),” she told a TV channel even as her male colleagues were still smarting after she accused them of monopolising the top jobs in the party and the government.

In a remark that her critics were quick to see as shorthand for her own leadership bid Ms Harman warned that the era of all-male Labour Party leadership was over and time had come for women to be given a chance to have a crack at the top job prompting a wave of angry comment from senior Labour figures.

By the end of the week, thanks to her strident advocacy of “feminist” issues Ms Harman had managed to bring back a whiff of the old-fashioned gender-divide among Britain’s chattering classes with most men on one side and women on the other.

So sexist was some of the male reaction (Rod Little in The Sunday Times was specially boorish) that even women who don’t like Ms Harman’s often shrill style found themselves defending her against “misogynist” commentators. One woman columnist accused them of portraying Ms Harman as a “monster” (“Cruella de Equality, a flapping vampiric harpy hunting the halls of power...”) simply because she was asking for a bit of gender equality.

Ms Harman being Ms Harman even the manner of her leaving Downing Street last week at the end of her allotted seven days in the limelight caused a controversy. She signed off her “shift” on Friday expecting that her successor, Mr. Mandelson (an even more contentious figure than her) would join on Saturday. But Mr. Mandelson, who was holidaying with a posh banker friend on an exotic Greek island, claimed that he had been given the impression that his “shift” would start on Monday and he had no intention of cutting short his holiday.

So, for some 72 hours there was a power vacuum at the heart of British Government (apparently a history of sorts). And when Mr. Mandelson finally showed up on Monday the first thing he did was to have a none-too-subtle dig at Ms Harman declaring that (unlike like her) he would not be so pompous as to set up his office at No. 10 and would continue to work from his own department. He was too humble, he suggested, to see himself as being “in charge of the country.”

“Look, I’m not in charge of the country — the Prime Minister is... He is on holiday and if there are small things I can pick up to give him the best holiday that he deserves, I’ll certainly do that,” he said so very humbly.

How touching — coming from a man who couldn’t stand the sight of Mr. Brown until a few months ago.

As I write this Mr. Mandelon has been in his “new” job for only a few days and though he has started off on a quiet note there is no knowing how it will all end. Punters, relying on his past reputation, predict an eventful week ahead.


An ‘outrageous’ verdict August 13, 2009