Martin Bright

Fear and Loathing at the Heart of Government

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There's some really fascinating stuff knocking around today. Rachel Sylvester's column in The Times is really quite extraordinary. She claims that in a conference call with Peter Mandelson and Ed Balls, the Prime Minister could not be persuaded to concentrate on domestic policy and kept returning to the international global crisis. Were there others involved in the call or is one of Balls or Mandelson briefing the Blairite Sylvester (hmm, I wonder)?

Pete Hoskin over at Coffee House has suggested that the level of humility in Alistair Darling's interview in today's Telegraph and similar noises from Ed Balls suggest that perhaps Brown will go for a mea culpa of his own in America. As I have said consistently that I believe Darling is a man of honour, whose loyalty was thrown back in his face last summer. This interview reinforces my view.

And then there is the strange case of Harriet Harman. The papers are full of the usual easy misogynistic hits on Harman suggesting that Brown has "slapped her down" (what a horrible expression that is) for suggesting that the government will act on Fred Goodwin's pension. But then there is Nick Watt in The Guardian who has a more sophisticated take. He suggests that Harman's intervention was a carefully calibrated intervention to position herself for the leadership. I tend to agree with him.

Watt quotes a minister who has got it about right. "Anyone who underestimates Harriet Harman is very foolish," said a minister. "I have tremendous admiration for the way in which she rehabilitated herself after being sacked from the cabinet by Tony Blair in 1998. She is a great organiser and, as a woman, she would be able to present herself as the change candidate."

I have heard Harriet being called "thick" and "incompetent" and "difficult" and (worst of all in Labour circles) "posh" but it's water off a duck's back to her. Never, ever underestimate Harman. And, above all, never underestimate her ambition.