Peter Mandelson finally gets to run the UK … from Corfu

As seats of power go, it is pretty spectacular. It emerged today that Peter Mandelson has chosen to run the country from Nathaniel Rothschild‘s opulent villa overlooking the sparkling Ionian Sea in a secluded corner of Corfu.

The business secretary is standing in for Gordon Brown for the next week but he is currently enjoying the hospitality of his banking heir friend in the exclusive parish of Kassiopi, which has become known as Kensington-on-Sea because of its attractiveness to Russian oligarchs, bankers and politicians.

Last year, Mandelson’s stay in the Rothschild’s cream-turreted Greek holiday home descended into controversy when he was entertained on a yacht by Oleg Deripaska, the Russian aluminium billionaire, and dined on stuffed sardines with the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, at the nearby Agni taverna.

This year, he is keeping a lower profile, even arriving on an easyJet flight.

“It looks like he’s just going to stay on the Rothschild estate this time,” said Nathan Pascoe, who owns Agni taverna. “There’s about eight photographers and reporters camped out here waiting for him to come to dinner, but they’re not going to get much more than a good suntan.”

Mandelson’s temporary government-in-Greece emerged after Harriet Harman, who was in charge this week, left for a holiday in Italy and Downing Street was asked who was stepping in.

Initially officials said Mandelson was taking over, even though he is not due back at his desk until Monday. Later they said that no minister was standing in for Brown over the weekend.

The 72-hour gap between Harman’s departure and Mandelson’s return is particularly embarrassing because earlier this year No 10 circulated a memo around Whitehall saying every department had to have a minister on duty throughout the holiday period.

“The prime minister wants business to be fronted by ministers and expects duty ministers to be on duty in London or on departmental visits at all time,” it said.

Being the duty minister in Downing Street rarely involves calling the shots. They chair meetings, deal with routine business and are on hand in case there is an emergency, but Brown is at the other end of a telephone and nothing important is likely to be decided without him.

An aide to Mandelson claimed that it had always been agreed that the business secretary would take over on Monday.

Mandelson will be in charge for a week. Alistair Darling, the chancellor, and Jack Straw, the justice secretary, will both take the helm for a week each afterwards.

Downing Street had to insist that Gordon Brown was still “in charge” yesterday after it appeared that for the next 48 hours Lord Mandelson could be “running the country” from his holiday residence in Corfu.

Officials insisted that Brown, who is on holiday in his constituency in Scotland, was still very much in touch and in control and that there was nothing unusual about the temporary absence of a duty minister in London.

But journalists are now used to reporting an annual summer “who’s running the country?” pantomime and yesterday, when it emerged that Harriet Harman had left for a holiday in Italy, Downing Street was asked to explain who was masterminding events in her place.

Initially Downing Street said that Mandelson was taking over – even though the business secretary is still on holiday in Corfu and not due back at his desk until Monday. Later officials said that no minister was standing in for Brown over the weekend, but by then the damage had been done.

Eric Pickles, the Tory chairman, gleefully pounced on the suggestion that Mandelson was directing the nation’s affairs from his sun lounger.

“You really know the country is in a shambolic state when we have an unelected official calling the shots from his holiday hideout,” Pickles said in a statement.

Actually, being the duty minister in Downing Street rarely involves calling the shots. The “acting prime minister” chairs meetings, deals with routine business and is on hand in case there is an emergency, but Brown is at the other end of a telephone and nothing important is likely to get decided without his agreement.

But the 72-hour gap between Harman’s departure and Mandelson’s return is nevertheless embarrassing for Brown because earlier this year Number 10 sent a memo around Whitehall marked “Summer Recess” saying every department had to have a minister on duty throughout the holiday period.

“The prime minister wants business to be fronted by ministers and expects duty ministers to be on duty in London or on departmental visits at all time,” it said.

Harman, who had been “in charge” for almost two weeks, flew to Italy yesterday morning.

An aide to Mandelson said that it had always been agreed that the business secretary would take over on Monday. The business secretary has been staying with his friend Nat Rothschild, who hosted Mandelson’s ill-fated meeting on the island with George Osborne last year.

Rothschild owns a palatial villa, but Mandelson did forfeit luxury at one point in his holiday by flying to Corfu on easyJet.

Mandelson will be “in charge” for a week. Alistair Darling, the chancellor, and Jack Straw, the justice secretary, will both take the helm for a week each afterwards as Brown enjoys an unusually long break.

The media first started taking a keen interest in who was “running the country” every summer when John Prescott deputised for Tony Blair. Prescott appeared to relish being a stand-in premier, and the prospect of him being in charge invariably aroused much interest in certain sections of the media.
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