Mandelson claims Labour party is in “flux” as leadership speculation increases

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EU Commissioner Peter Mandelson has backed the Foreign Secretary’s decision to set out his vision of the future for the government.

David Miliband’s article in today’s Guardian is widely viewed as the first move in a bid for the Labour party leadership, as Prime Minister Gordon Brown faces calls to stand down.

So far only two backbench Labour MPs have publicly called for him to go, but Cabinet ministers are reported to be planning to confront him about his leadership.

As many as ten junior ministers are said to be ready to resign to try to force a leadership challenge.

“The odds are against us, no question,” Mr Miliband wrote.

“But I still believe we can win the next election.

“The starting point is not debating personalities but winning the argument about our record, our vision for the future and how we achieve it.

“When people hear exaggerated claims, either about failure or success, they switch off. That is why politicians across all parties fail to connect.

“To get our message across, we must be more humble about our shortcomings but more compelling about our achievements.”

The article mentions former Conservative PM Margaret Thatcher and current Tory leader David Cameron but not Mr Brown.

It has been interpreted as Mr Miliband “setting out his stall” in anticipation of a leadership contest, though this afternoon he told Sky News that his article was about Mr Cameron and not the Prime Minister.

“Gordon Brown is the leader of the Labour party and he will lead us forward to address the big issues,” he said.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4 this morning Peter Mandelson, a former Cabinet minister under Tony Blair, said :

“It would be odd if the government didn’t have people who were in a position to make their mark, to make their contribution, in the way that David is doing.

“Obviously the Labour Party is in some flux and it would be rather stupid to deny that.”

The feud between Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson is the stuff of Westminster legend.

Mr Mandelson backed Mr Blair over his close friend Mr Brown for the leadership of the Labour party in 1994.

The Prime Minister is said to have nurtured a grudge against Mr Mandelson ever since.

Mr Mandelson has been the UK’s appointee in Brussels since November 2004 and last year was placed at number three on the list of the 50 most important LGBT people in British politics.

He was one of Tony Blair’s closest advisers when Labour came to power in 1997 and was appointed to the Cabinet twice, but had to resign both times.

Harriet Harman, Secretary of State for Equality, is also widely expected to throw her hat in the ring if there is a leadership contest, though she has repeatedly denied any plans and blamed the media for the rumours.

“The men in the House of Commons press lobby keep saying ‘are you preparing a leadership bid?’ and I keep saying, ‘no’,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.

“But I think it’s one of those occasions whey they won’t take no for an answer and when a woman says ‘no’, she means ‘no’.”

She has denied that she said “this is my moment” as she watched news coverage of Labour’s defeat in last week’s Glasgow East by-election. The Times claims she was overheard at a Labour party policy meeting on Friday.

In a statement yesterday Ms Harman said:

“I am not preparing the ground for a leadership election.

“In respect of Labour’s defeat in the Glasgow East by-election, I did not tell aides – or anyone else – that ‘this is my moment’.

“I was bitterly disappointed by the Glasgow East by-election result in which I campaigned in support of Margaret Curran – a woman who I admire greatly.

“My ‘public protestations of loyalty’ to Gordon Brown are no different to what I have expressed in private. I do not accept ‘it is over’.”

Mr Brown is currently on holiday in Suffolk.

Last week the Scottish National Party took Glasgow East from Labour, overturning a majority of more than 13,000.

John Mason, the successful SNP MP, won 11,277 votes (43%).

Labour’s Margaret Curran polled 10,912 (42%).

The Tory candidate came third with 1,639 votes and the Lib Dems were fourth with 915.

Speaking to party activists in Warwick on Friday, the Prime Minister said:

“Have confidence that not only do we have the right policies but that when the time comes we will be able to persuade the British people.”

The Labour party lost the “safe” seat of Crewe and Nantwich to the Tories two months ago, while in last month’s by-election to replace Boris Johnson as MP for Henley they were pushed into fifth place, behind the Greens and the BNP.

Mr Johnson won the London Mayoral election in May, defeating the Labour candidate Ken Livingstone.

The defeat in Scotland led to increased speculation that Mr Brown may be replaced as Labour leader before the next election, which is expected to be called in 2010.

Other Cabinet ministers named as possible successors include Justice Secretary Jack Straw, Schools Secretary Ed Balls and Health Secretary Alan Johnson.