Ed Miliband "will make a very good prime minister" and is not anti-business, Lord Mandelson said as he insisted a report that he sounded out an alternative Labour leader during a coup plot was "complete rubbish". The former business secretary said corporate leaders "will become much more reassured" about the Opposition's stance by the time of May's general election despite a barrage of criticism over recent days.
Two of the key figures in Tony Blair's New Labour project - Lord Mandelson and ex-Downing Street media chief Alastair Campbell - contacted Alan Johnson over speculation that he was being lined up by MPs seeking to oust Miliband. But both countered a claim in the Financial Times that they "took soundings to see whether he was prepared to take over".
Lord Mandelson insisted he did not "probe, let alone encourage" Johnson. Pressed on the issue by BBC Radio 4's Today, he said: "As a rather good friend of Alan Johnson it would be rather strange if I didn't phone him and find out what all this hype was about. I think I probably teased him a bit and suggested it was the publicity agent ... whipping all this media interest to boost sales in his book, which incidentally is very good. But the rest of the story is complete rubbish."
He played down the significance of the conversation by suggesting they regularly talked as Johnson represents a Hull seat in the Commons and the peer is the city's High Steward. "I strongly support Ed Miliband's leadership and ... I want to see him as prime minister of this country," he declared.
Pointing to the newspaper profile of the Labour leader which contained the allegation, he said: "He is, I think, accurately portrayed as a tough, a principled, very determined individual."
Labour has been under siege over its business policies, with a string of senior figures sharing fears of the implications of a victory for Miliband after the boss of Boots said it could be a "catastrophe". Lord Mandelson accepted that more needed to be done to counter the impression being created but said the criticism was a deliberate attempt to misrepresent the party's position.
"We've got two months to show that he can make the case," he said. "I believe he has, but I believe there is a determination also to portray him in a very negative way. People are going out of their way to pick up on every single stray word, to take out of context and to portray him as basically anti-business. I don't think he is against business; he is for good business practice, he is in favour of business responsibility. But then so is the vast bulk of business itself. As he sets this out, increasingly, I honestly think that business will become much more reassured."
He said a commitment to seek the blacklisting of British overseas territories operating as "tax havens" unveiled this weekend was "very clearly demonstrating a commitment that is both pro-business and pro-social justice". "He brings the same passion to both those things - the two things I strongly support - and I think he will make a very good prime minister of our country."
The peer - who also served as the EU's trade commissioner - said Miliband would not shy away from making the case for Britain's EU membership during the campaign, despite fears over the threat of Europe. "The greatest risk for business in this country is that we have a Conservative-led government that unleashes the Tory Party lemmings that are just determined to race over this cliff and take us out of Europe," he said.
Rumours swept Westminster in November that Labour critics were actively preparing a challenge and hoped to persuade Johnson - Miliband's shadow chancellor until he stepped down for personal reasons - to take the reins. Miliband was forced to insist he would not "buckle under the pressure", quipping that he had learned the meaning of the phrase "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger".
A spokesman for Campbell insisted he had not been involved in any bid to depose the leader and that such an allegation had probably been made by "one of the plotters". "When the frenzy was going on and people were saying Alan was going for it, he (Campbell) called and asked him if it was true. He was emphatic he was not and that was that," he said.