Books: Wait for a comeback by the Napoleon of Notting Hill

Roy Hattersley argues that Peter Mandelson's slapdash, sensational and partisan biographer has rushed to judgment a full decade too early; Mandy by Paul Routledge Simon & Schuster, pounds 17.99, 302pp
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The Independent Culture
SOONER OR later, Peter Mandelson will return to the Cabinet. Assuming the Labour Party wins the next general election, his talents will guarantee that he enjoys a long and eventful ministerial career. Then, let us say about 2010, it will be possible to write a serious biography about a politician whose achievements justify 300 pages. Paul Routledge has attempted that task a full decade too early. The most interesting aspect of Mandy - since it tells us really little about its subject which was not already known - is why the author rushed so prematurely into print.

Routledge himself will deny that his aim was to damage Peter Mandelson as his contribution to the arcane battle which we are told is raging within the Labour leadership. But he has chosen to emphasise shortcomings and trip lightly over undoubted virtues. As a result, he often paints a distorted picture and obscures rather than reveals the more interesting aspects of Mandelson's rise to fame and notoriety.

Quite properly, Mandelson's appointment in 1985 as Labour's director of communications is identified as the time at which he became a major political figure. But the story of how he got the job is virtually submerged under what Routledge clearly believes is an exposure of intrigue. It may well be that Mandelson volunteered to work in the Brecon and Radnor by- election in the hope of improving his chances of getting the job. But that, wholly unreprehensible aspect of his appointment is far less interesting than the fact that, initially, Neil Kinnock favoured another candidate.

Kinnock changed his mind before the interview. But when Mandelson arrived, there was certainly no majority for him on the National Executive. He performed with such brilliance that, unusually for a political appointment, he carried the day on the merits of his presentation. He was then a London Weekend Television producer and certainly thought the new job was a step up. But there was a second reason for the move which Routledge has overlooked. Mandelson worked for Albert Booth, the shadow Transport Minister, and he found Booth's deputy an uncongenial comrade. The deputy was a young man called John Prescott.

The omissions from Mandy are compounded by simple errors. Tony Blair did not vacillate about whether to stand for Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in 1992. He decided - on my advice among others' - that deputies rarely become leaders and that he should not prejudice his chance of succeeding John Smith. John Smith's antipathy to Mandelson was in no way associated with the dead leader's distaste for Julie Hall, partner and eventual wife of Mandelson's deputy. Certainly, Smith never forgave Hall for standing with her television crew outside the hospital in which he was being treated for his first heart attack, "waiting for him to die". But Smith's complaint against Mandelson was the same as mine. He was too interested in presentation and too little concerned with politics.

I was never Peter Mandelson's "mentor" - an idea he may find as embarrassing as I do. Whichever of us is most offended, we will both agree that it is simply an invention. It may be that errors are the result of this book being written in a hurry. It certainly bears all the marks of speedy and slapdash production. The final paragraph begins with a sentence of pure gibberish: "I always this of him as decent, solid and loyal."

The speed with which the book was produced probably provides the clue to its premature appearance. Either publisher or author believed that Mandy (a truly terrible title) would sell because it revealed damaging facts about Mandelson's private life - particularly the help he received from Geoffrey Robinson when he bought his house in Notting Hill. That is a rotten reason for writing a biography, not because it damages the subject but because it obscures less sensational but more important facts.

The result is that Routledge hardly mentions the reasons why Mandelson is so unpopular within the party. His crimes are ideological. He stands for a position which even few "modernisers" of New Labour share. His social pretensions are held against him because they are seen as a feature of his flight from anything that resembles socialism.

I have no idea how Mandelson behaved in the days after John Smith's death. Perhaps he was campaigning for Tony Blair within hours - although a senior member of the Labour Party told me on the morning of the funeral that Mandelson had canvassed him on behalf of Gordon Brown earlier that week. I do know that after Blair became leader, Mandelson thought it right to exalt his new hero by attempting to diminish his predecessor. Looking back, that now seems the paradigm of his behaviour: shifting, but maniacally ruthless, loyalty to his chosen champion. A biography that does not deal with that aspect of his character is barely worth reading.