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November 23, 2009 2:00 am

Mandelson seeks to end tensions over negotiations

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Lord Mandelson, UK business secretary, yesterday sought to bury tensions at the top of the UK government over Gordon Brown's handling of negotiations in Brussels last week that saw Britain's Lady Ashton become the European Union's foreign policy chief.

Lord Mandelson was furious at the choice, believing Lady Ashton had neither the experience nor the clout to project Europe's voice on the world stage, and offered himself at the last minute as an alternative candidate.

But Lady Ashton prevailed in Brussels, thanks partly to her assiduous courting of European socialist leaders, who backed her candidacy above that of Lord Mandelson, the occasionally imperious former EU trade chief.

The fallout of that choice reverberated through Westminster over the weekend, with recriminations in the Sunday newspapers about how Mr Brown had allowed the relatively unknown Lady Ashton take the post.

Lord Mandelson was reported by The Sunday Times to have tried to persuade David Miliband, the foreign secretary, to take the role instead, so that he might fulfil his own long-standing dream of going to the Foreign Office.

The business secretary is also said by friends to believe that the negotiations were "botched" and that unless Britain had a heavyweight foreign policy chief it should have instead tried to secure a top economic job in the European Commission.

The names of Shriti Vadera, the abrasive former business minister, and Adair Turner, chairman of Britain's Financial Services Authority, were still being batted around last week.

Now Michel Barnier, France's former foreign minister, is expected to become the EU's internal market chief, an appointment that has angered Britain's opposition Conservatives.

Lord Mandelson's allies tried to end the row yesterday, describing reports that he wanted Mr Miliband's job as "total rubbish" and insisting he was ready to dedicate all his energies to Labour's re-election campaign. It also emerged that Lord Mandelson is trying to bolster Downing Street's press operation, heading a regular 8am conference call with officials to plot media strategy.

Lady Ashton has vowed to demonstrate that she is "best person for the job".

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