Books: Opportunist in blue socks

Mandelson: The Biography by Donald Macintyre HarperCollins pounds 19.99; Roy Hattersley on the ducking and weaving of a colleague who 'fell like Lucifer'
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P art of the charm of political biographies - at least for readers who have lived through the triumphs and tragedies which they describe - is the opportunity which they provide to play the harmless game, Identify the Indiscretion. I know, for example, who told Donald Macintyre that Neil Kinnock complained about Peter Mandelson wearing pale blue socks at the fallen idol's interview for the job of Labour Party director of communications. I take the blame - though the adjective with which the socks were described has been added to give the story extra interest. But who revealed the contents of what, by normal standards of personal reticence, should have been a private correspondence between Tony Blair and the distraught Member for Hartlepool? Mandelson, by his own subsequent account, "went nuclear and lost all grace" when a strategy committee rejected his advice on economic policy. However, there is no note to tell us who handed over the letter in which Blair called him "my rock and comforter" and went on to describe his "closest friend" as one of "the most brilliant minds of his generation".

Anonymous (and very minor) revelations of that sort make Mandelson: The Biography irresistible reading for anyone who loves the lethal trivia of politics. But - as was to be expected from a journalist of Donald Macintyre's quality - it is far more than a carefully slanted gossip column. Mr Mandelson's generosity with time and access to his papers - properly acknowledged at the beginning of the book - has guaranteed that some of his self-serving messages from the political grave have been published. But, like all the best biographies, Mandelson is as much about an age as it is about a man. Peter Mandelson was the apotheosis of New Politics: the obsession with image and the reluctance to judge any policy issue against any criterion except electoral merit. The row during which he "went nuclear" and resigned (momentarily) from Tony Blair's circle of closest advisers had causes which nobody could remember. But the tension had built up during a series of rows about "how far Labour was prepared, as Brown wanted, to promote a redistributionist future". Mandelson - aided by Philip Gould, the focus group man - said that redistribution lost votes. To him that seemed to be the end of the argument.

In any other political generation, Peter Mandelson - a man of immense ability, colossal energy and irrepressible ambition - would almost certainly have made his way to the top of whichever political party seemed appropriate at the time. But his success would have been built on policies, not patronage. All we know about Mandelson's beliefs is what he is against. By chronicling his progress - up as well as down - Donald Macintyre has charted the end of ideo- logical politics.

In the trade which he and I once followed, it is often necessary to "declare an interest". So I make clear at once that I must take some of the responsibility for Peter Mandelson's rise to glory. I first met him when he was an unhappy research assistant working for Albert Booth, the shadow transport secretary, and finding it impossible to get on with Booth's deputy, John Prescott. When he applied for a job with London Weekend Television, I was one of his referees. During my ill-fated campaign for the Labour Party leadership, he remained on the burning deck right to the end: thus belying his reputation for abandoning every ship that showed the slightest sign of sinking. I was his referee again when he applied to become Labour's director of communications. Mandelson's performance at the interview guaranteed his success. I assumed that his obsession with presentation would pass when he changed jobs. The Institute of Politics at Harvard had taught me that "where you stand depends on where you sit". I happily helped him to win nomination as prospective parliamentary candidate for Hartlepool.

Throughout that time I certainly never discussed, and I barely even thought about, Peter Mandelson's sexual inclinations. Nor would I consider them now were they not such a major - at least in terms of space - issue in Donald Macintyre's biography. My instinct is to echo the view, once expressed so eloquently by Mandelson himself, that his private life is nobody's business but his own. But it is hard to believe that the stories of his friendships would have been so complete had Macintyre not benefited from the generosity to which he paid tribute. Perhaps after the deplorable "outing" on Newsnight - followed by angry letters which the biography reproduces verbatim - Mandelson decided to go to the other extreme. That too is his business. My only complaint is that the emphasis on Peter's sexuality requires me to explain that the story about his blue socks was meant to be a comment on Neil Kinnock's working-class propriety - the characteristic which often impelled him to suggest that I should clean my shoes.

As soon as he became director of publicity, Peter Mandelson (very properly) devoted his energies and enthusiasm to promoting the interests of Neil Kinnock. Tony Benn (accurately rather than rightly) accused him of serving the Party Leader not the Party. And Macintyre charts the assistance that he provided in helping Kinnock to ease Labour away from unilateral nuclear disarmament, out-and-out opposition to the European Community and an antagonism to private enterprise. He was, in effect, arguing and plotting against official party policy. At the same time he was doing his best to promote the interests of his (always temporary) heroes. At first it was Bryan Gould - disenchanted in the early 1990s and now largely forgotten. Next, Mandelson became an enthusiastic supporter of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - then operating in partnership with Blair as the junior member. He never felt any inclination to attach himself to John Smith. And when Neil Kinnock lost his second election, John Smith became leader.

All that Peter Mandelson and John Smith had in common was their high intelligence, gender and membership of the Labour Party. Donald Macintyre describes an evening in Edinburgh when John Smith, Donald Dewar, Peter Mandelson and I had a late-night discussion of Labour's future. The account, which must have come from Mandelson himself, is inaccurate in almost every detail, but it captures the spirit of the evening exactly. I was not surprised to read that after Smith became party leader he expressed his "innate detestation of trickiness with the press". Macintyre reasonably assumes that when he complained "we're talking about the government of the country, not the entertainment industry", he had Mandelson in mind. After Smith became leader, Mandelson was left out in the cold. Smith's successful battle for "one-member-one-vote" changed the culture of the Labour Party and prepared the way for all the other reforms. But after Smith's death Mandelson attacked his "one more heave mentality". Macintyre is right to describe that episode in his courtship of Tony Blair as beyond my forgiveness.

I have no way of knowing if, during John Smith's brief leadership, Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson were (as Mandelson now claims) distressed that the Labour Party was not being changed out of recognition. Nor do I know if Peter Mandelson reacted to John Smith's death with the single- minded opportunism which Macintyre describes. At John Smith's funeral, a senior member of the Parliamentary Party told me that, within hours of the doleful news, Mandelson had approached him on Gordon Brown's behalf. At least for once he managed to end up on the winning side. And then he fell like Lucifer. The clarity with which Macintyre analyses his ducking and weaving only makes the reader wonder why it did not happen sooner.

When the end came he had, technically and legally, committed no offence. Late, but just before he had to take formal responsibility for the inquiry into Geoffrey Robinson's business affairs, he told his permanent secretary that he had borrowed pounds 373,000 from the Paymaster-General. If Mo Mowlam or Clare Short had done something similar, they would have survived. But then no other Labour Cabinet Minister would have felt the need to confirm his social status with so desirable a property. I was sorry to see him go - or at least to see such an absurdity bring him down. It was the speech that he made immediately before his resignation - rejoicing that the government had turned its back on traditional socialist values - that I thought disqualified him from Labour office.

But ideology is not what this book is about. It is a meticulous, if sometimes misinformed, account of Mandelson's life and work and is, therefore, the story of intrigue, manipulation and the calculation of political odds. For all its readable fascination, it would have been better never written. Mandelson: The Biography gives politics a bad name.