Lord Mandelson 'behind campaign to oust Baroness Ashton as EU foreign chief'


Lord Mandelson is plotting the downfall of the EU's foreign affairs supremo Baroness Ashton, it was claimed yesterday.

Reports suggested she was 'on the verge' of resigning from her £328,000-a-year job because of constant criticism and the fact that she was out of her depth.

Lady Ashton's aides denied the reports and said the whispering campaign was the work of Lord Mandelson, long viewed as a master of the dark art of media spin.

Peter Mandelson
Baroness Catherine Ashton

'Plot': Lord Mandelson is said to be keen for David Miliband to take Baroness Ashton's role in the EU so he can become the next Foreign Secretary

The Business Secretary spokesman's in turn denied this claim, but gave a less than ringing endorsement of Lady Ashton's performance in her role as the unelected European Union High Representative.

'He thinks she is doing quite a reasonable job,' the spokesman said.

Mr Miliband turned down a job at the EU last year

David Miliband turned down a job at the EU last year

Westminster insiders said Lord Mandelson may covet the powerful position himself, especially if he is looking for a new job after next week's General Election.

At the time of Lady Ashton's appointment last November it was rumoured that Lord Mandelson, a former European trade commissioner, also wanted the post.

Yesterday's newspaper reports claimed that Lady Ashton, 54, would leave her position within months, despite being expected to fill it for five years.

An unnamed European Commission official was quoted as saying that 'every day is an uphill struggle' and that her position was untenable because of her lack of experience and political weakness.

These claims were strenuously denied by Lady Ashton, who was yesterday on an official visit to China.

Her official spokesman said: 'She completely refutes the media report that she is stepping down.'

One of the Labour peer's aides said: 'When I saw the report I immediately thought of Mandelson. It has his fingerprints all over it.'

Her team claimed that Lord Mandelson started the Ashton resignation rumour by placing it in an Italian newspaper, La Stampa, in the knowledge that it would be followed up in Britain.

Another theory, put forward by Lady Ashton's aide, is that Lord Mandelson wants to force her to resign so the EU job can be handed to David Miliband.

The Foreign Secretary, was offered the post last year but refused it, reportedly because he didn't want to spend 'years on a plane' and because he was angling to become the next Labour leader if the party loses power.

Mr Miliband's departure from the British political scene would clear the way for Lord Mandelson to become Foreign Secretary if Labour has a role in the next government.

'Mandelson is desperate to become Foreign Secretary,' said a source close to Lady Ashton.

But a spokesman for Lord Mandelson said: 'The story does not stack up under any objective criteria. Lord Mandelson doesn't take any view on the future of Baroness Ashton.'

Lady Ashton has run into problems ever since her surprise appointment. She was the fourth British choice for the post after Mr Miliband, Lord Mandelson and former Cabinet minister Geoff Hoon either declined it or were vetoed by other countries. She was seen as a compromise choice.

She has been criticised for not being able to speak French and for failing to have full command of her brief. Lady Ashton also ran into trouble for failing to visit Haiti after the earthquake in January.

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