He's got an image problem, has Peter Mandelson, moustache or no moustache. To the world, he's a snake, a manipulator and an arch-fixer with a direct line to Tony Blair, while he just wants to be a 'politician in my own right'. Hence, a charm offensive roots rallies; hence, a charm', to the world, he's the arch fixer with the direct line to Tony Blair. . Hence a book, and a rally in the Midlands. And then Harriet Harman came along
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PETER MANDELSON'S wooing of Welling-borough began well. His First- Class train from London was pleasingly fast and punctual. The party agent who picked him up was appropriately informative and deferential. At the pub where Mandelson was to address the Labour supper club, members arrived in gratifyingly excited clusters minutes after he did, leaving time for the local parliamentary candidate eagerly to buy him an orange juice. Then the slight, smooth-jawed Mandelson met their ruddy and wrinkled faces: a "hello dear" here and a tactful stoop there, a strategic wink or a dropped h, a tug on the anorak of a Labour Party youngster who works the phones. "I joined at the age of 15 too," Mandelson mused, loud enough for everyone to hear.

Looking up, he flicked his gaze over the glaring red carpet, wood-effect tables, pints and ashtrays, the people shouting through the smoke. In the past, when Mandelson was Labour's director of communications, this gaze used to convey sly metropolitan contempt; now, in his new frontbench persona, boosting local morale and his own national profile, it took on a professional glaze of pleasure. He was handed a paper plate of pastry and crisps - no salad, no vegetables, just a pallid pickled onion. He ate it.

When he spoke, rough hands applauded. Old Labour faces cracked and laughed. Jacket off, he joked about Wellingborough, about his Hartlepool constituency, about the journalists in the room. "I've never met a spin doctor," he said, almost smiling, winningly. "Have you ever met a spin doctor?" They roared. Two years before, the same room had heard Tony Blair; tonight, his closest adviser caught almost as many ears. Not with rhetoric - Mandelson's sentences stayed sober as a civil servant's - but with the promise of power. They knew this thin-lipped man would soon be running New Labour's general election campaign. And he was talking about success - even of winning Wellingborough, with its five-figure Tory majority, for the eager young man sitting next to him. Yet he sounded realistic, convincing; they smoked harder.

Then, as Mandelson was wrapping up triumphantly, and drawing the supper club raffle, and gracefully but quickly making his way towards the door, an odd thing happened. In the corner nearest the door, the applause turned to singing. "The people's flag is deepest red/It shrouded oft our martyred dead...", a table of old ladies quavered. People stopped talking, looked round. Mandelson, in conversation with the candidate, his back to the singers, appeared not to notice. More voices joined in. By the end of the verse, teary eyes and cracking throats filled half the room, straining with the old romanticism: "Tho' cowards flinch and traitors sneer/We'll keep the red flag flying here..." Next to Mandelson, a councillor tried to blurt over the singing: "It's not that sort of supper club." Mandelson stood stiffly, back still turned, burying himself in his conversation. He had put his jacket back on, ready to go; on his lapel he was wearing a tiny red rose, the rose he had imposed to eradicate socialist banner- waving from the party a decade ago. His pale, fine cheeks had turned slightly paler. He did not look round once.

PETER MANDELSON would like to control these situations. After spending his political life cajoling party workers and Westminster journalists, he would like to do the same with back rooms in mid-winter Midlands towns like Wellingborough. He calls his new ambition "becoming a politician in my own right", making "a mark". He is quite eloquent about it: "If you're simply a fixer, somebody who plays to different galleries, who twists and turns with every breeze, then you're worthless as a politician..."

He has worked diligently in recent years to achieve "worth". In 1990, Mandelson, a native of Hampstead, gave up his communications empire at party headquarters to become a humble MP, for Hartlepool, five hours away in the North-east. Last year he took up the dusty post of Opposition spokesman on the Civil Service. Then he spent most of his rare spare hours shut up in a room at the house of his friend Robert Harris, the novelist, writing a policy book called The Blair Revolution, about what he thinks a Labour government should do. "It has been extremely punishing," he says, in his clipped, almost posh voice. (The book is due this month, but not finished.) "It has involved huge discipline on my part... and I've loved it."

Yet "worth" is proving difficult to come by. It is not that he lacks power; in fact, that's the problem. Mandelson is, and has been, ubiquitous in recent Labour affairs. This ubiquity, and the way he has attained and maintained it, obsesses his opponents. He is considered dangerous and "highly influential" by the party's dissidents at the Tribune newspaper; accused by one of its ex-big noises, Bryan Gould, of having run a secret "Mandelson project" since the mid-Eighties to install Tony Blair as party leader; and acknowledged by Blair himself as the covert organiser of his leadership bid in 1993. (He and Blair have next-door constituencies; Mandelson shared a room with the Blairs' baby daughter while seeking the Hartlepool nomination.) But these are the doings of a mere "fixer". "I suspect he enjoys intrigue almost more than he ought to," says an old colleague (such people prefer to remain anonymous). The result is that only journalists and other politicians think of Mandelson as famous or important, or indeed think of him at all. And being so covert and so dependent on his leader - a parliamentary colleague speaks scornfully of Mandelson "sitting on the front bench, turning over Tony's speeches for the next day and making little marginal notes" - Mandelson lacks a certain credibility. Of his efforts to gain some, one party enemy says, "If we are seeing this policy side of Peter Mandelson, it's for the first time. Long-term to him means the Prime Minister's Questions after next."

Mandelson has many such enemies. The secrecy of his role in making Blair leader showed this: Mandelson had to hide behind the codename "Bobby" (after John F Kennedy's scheming brother, Robert) for fear of his involvement alienating potential Blair supporters. A parliamentary ally of Mandelson's describes the extent of this dislike: "I was in conversation with a Scottish MP - a Blairite, no left-winger. Mandelson's name came into the conversation. He said, 'I hate that man! Why doesn't he go away?' "

Much of this, of course, stems from the past, from when Mandelson did the dirty work for Neil Kinnock's Labour modernisation - all the anonymous briefing and truth-twisting that has come to be associated with the modern perjorative "spin doctor". Mandelson, and the allies he does have, argue that he has acted as the "lightning conductor" for conscience-salving bolts of protest against changes in the Party, allowing MPs to avoid attacking the leadership, or actually opposing the changes themselves. David Marquand, Professor of Politics at the Univer-sity of Sheffield, agrees: "The same thing happened with Harold Wilson. His Mandelson was his press secretary Gerald Kaufman, or Marcia Williams." And nowadays, Mandelson insists, his chicanery is over: "I don't run the lobby and I don't brief the press."

But when Mandelson says such things as "I only exist to serve", many of his colleagues still hear not Kaufman or Williams but Rasputin, or the Earl of Strafford. On Spitting Image, still a potent expression of current political reputation, Mandelson is portrayed, not as a statesman, however vain or foolish, or even as human at all, but as a tiny, fanged and drooling head, sitting atop the body of a slithering, hypnotic snake. Mandelson the "real politician" has much work to do. Hence the book. And hence the Wellingborough supper club. In the past Mandelson designed podia rather than stood on them, but two weekends ago, he pulled on a baggy green suit - more old-fashioned than the slim grey ones he usually wears - stuffed his mobile phone and neat manila files into a creased holdall, and gave up his Friday night and Saturday morning to the south Midlands. First, he was to cheer the beleaguered troops in unwinnable Wellingborough, then be driven east to "mobilise" in much more winnable Tamworth, with its 7,192 Tory majority and impending by-election. With its usual throroughness, his office arranged for a journalist to witness this "transition" from technocrat to town hall rouser. I met Mandelson at St Pancras Station.

His lower jaw jutted a little more awkwardly than expected - Mandelson knows how to improve himself in photographs. The English-teacher moustache he sported during his communications days was gone, making him look younger than 42, more good-looking, and more like a television villain. His hair had been cut very short, almost shaved, round the ears; with his worn but gleaming shoes and his baggy suit, he could have passed for a member of the same cabinet as his grandfather, Herbert Morrison, deputy prime minister under Attlee.

But a modern Herbert Morrison, you felt, would not have disappeared with his mobile phone the moment he got on the train. Returning, Mandelson apologised, took out a green and gold fountain pen that matched his cuff- links, and instantly settled over a neat stack of papers. He worked silently for 15 minutes, layering fresh A4 sheets with headings, asterisks, and underlinings in the manner of the highly organised, and those used to working on juddering trains. His writing was elegant, and impossible to read (tiny vowels) from the other side of the First-Class table - unlike the large block letters on the papers he was consulting, which spelt out "Mr Tony Blair MP".

When he finally spoke, his tone was self-consciously casual: "Ask what you like - I don't care about anything any more." Yet, apart from his holdall, which lay unzipped and gaping, inviting a glance inside, he seemed quite impenetrable. Questions came back as hard-staring paragraphs of party policy, echoing Blair's speech on stakeholding earlier that afternoon almost word for word, and delivered in a precise monotone, as if by a more competent John Major. What was his agenda for Labour/the country/the election campaign? The answer always seemed to be: "Preparing for the future, rather than letting change simply wash over us."

Mandelson wrapped himself in this wall of party correctness for much of the weekend. Hints of what lay behind it came only with his hesitations. What did he believe in? "I've always been a strong, principled social democrat who believes..." He paused but held his stare. The train roared. "Er... The central role of government is to bring economic efficiency and to bring fairness." Wasn't that the sort of thing Margaret Thatcher could have said? He retreated behind the wall: "It's patently not. We had a nauseating dose of Thatcherism from the former prime minister last week."

Oddly for someone promising access to his personality and ideas, Mandelson seemed much happier asking me questions. Who had I spoken to? What had they said? Shouldn't I talk to his friend Robert Harris? Was I going to write another of those "boring" spin-doctor articles? At these moments he became quite different: he leaned forward, his eyes brightened, his mouth curled in the corners and showed clean white teeth. He was funny and charming. He said "Andy" a lot, mid-sentence, in a new, conspiratorial voice. I sensed heavy spin: the daily, smiling pressure on the lobby correspondent to think something like "We're all in this together." I forgot my questions.

Mandelson's other method of attack-as-defence was mockery. In Tamworth the next day, half-way through stirring up a stuffy charity hall full of party members with something close to passion - "We are not preaching to the converted in this constituency... We are seeking converts!" - he suddenly stopped stamping his brogues and dropped his voice. "I have bad news," he said. "This town is going to be crawling with representatives of the world's press." He pointed to me taking notes. He had made a joke - and the hundred people filling that hot room laughed long and loud. Mandelson is one of us now, said the laughs of the Labour husbands and wives; not one of them - the press, the PR people. He had used the same joke in Wellingborough, twice.

SHARPNESS has long been a Mandelson hallmark. He claims to have started electioneering at the age of five - he told two old ladies so in Wellingborough - by watching the canvass returns come in for the 1959 election. As he grew up in Hampstead Garden Suburb in the early Sixties, his middle-class parents (his father was advertising manager for the Jewish Chronicle) soon had him delivering Labour leaflets. On Sundays, the family went to see grandfather Herbert. Harold Wilson lived nearby; when he won back power for the party in 1964, after a Labour absence comparable only to that since 1979, Mandelson remembers "standing on the pavement, absolutely mesmerised as he sped off towards Number Ten." Soon afterwards, he and his father were invited to tea there.

But respectability, Mandelson soon realised, wasn't the best way to make a name. At Hendon County Grammar School, where he told friends he wanted to be prime minister, he campaigned for conversion to a comprehensive. He was attacked as an "industrial militant" by the headmaster, but his campaign for comprehensive status helped secure it. When he joined the party, it was the left-wing Young Socialists: their activities included heckling the Labour foreign secretary, Michael Stewart, about the Vietnam War. Then, in 1971, the summer after his A-levels, and just before winning a scholarship to St Catherine's College, Oxford, there was the Young Communist League.

"I wasn't sure if I was technically a member," Mandelson says now. "I went to the meetings... I really can't remember what led to the YCL. It was short-lived... I felt no identification. I spent far more time," he emphasises, "setting up a tremendous youth club at the Winchester Arms pub in Swiss Cottage. Tearing it apart with my bare hands, then rebuilding it to make it structurally sound."

Mandelson took a year off before university to work in Africa; he had persuaded Arch-bishop Trevor Huddleston to arrange for him to teach and work as an anaesthetist in a Tanzanian hospital. When he returned, Oxford did not impress: "I didn't feel I had much in common with all those fresh- faced undergraduates discovering class warfare for the first time." Instead, Mandelson took on a second, professional life, commuting to London to work for the United Nations, raise money for the Namibian independence movement, and serve as vice-chairman of the government-funded British Youth Council. He learnt to use organisations: "Peter played this amazing game at the BYC of keeping in balance Young Communists and girl guides," says a former colleague there. "He's got an instinct for what people want out of a situation."

In 1976 , Mandelson left Oxford with a second in politics, philosophy and economics and a BYC assignment to find out about youth unemployment, which was then starting its inexorable rise. He took up a junior economics post at the TUC as well. But when he published his unemployment report - "the best thing I've ever done in my life" - a row ensued. TUC functionaries were not supposed to produce such documents for other people. Mandelson was reprimanded, and then - as he had been at school - rewarded: the Cabinet invited him to present his findings. "I felt very awkward doing it," he says. "But I've always trusted my instinct." In 1978 he became a Lambeth councillor. In his TUC job, he saw the fading days of the Labour government at first hand, taking notes at meetings between union leaders and ministers. (Now, he remembers the atmosphere as "well-intentioned" but "claustrophobic"; he is cool towards unions.) After Callaghan fell, he made it into the Commons as a researcher for Albert Booth, but there and in Lambeth the Labour Party was turning to the left, a direction Mandelson had left behind with his A-levels.

In 1982, he gave up politics. Well, not exactly - he took a job at London Weekend Television, alongside John Birt, Melvyn Bragg, Greg Dyke and Christopher Bland. Mandelson quickly became a producer on Weekend World, a serious, even turgid, Sunday lunchtime policy programme watched mainly by politicians and other journalists. "I wouldn't have said he was a brilliant TV practitioner," says one of his old bosses. "But Weekend World was more about contacts... And he had a wonderful combination of charm and ruthlessness."

By now Mandelson was doing well. Well enough to have a cottage in Wales, where he was staying in the summer of 1985, when Neil Kinnock's office rang to ask if he would like to help in the nearby Brecon and Radnor by- election. He did; Labour lost, but narrowly. He was appointed director of communications.

"The office I was shown into had a swing chair about to swing off its pedestal," says Mandelson. "And a large, sprawling, dying plant on the window sill behind." Actually, the party had already formed a "breakfast group" of pollsters and advertisers to improve its terrible public image. But Mandelson widened the process, with his red rose, his reassuring green backdrop for the 1986 Party Conference, and all the intensive soft-focusing and posture-sharpening that led to Kinnock's televised cliff-top walk in the election campaign the following year.

Mandelson didn't really have any experience. "I felt quite insecure in the job," he says. "So I was probably more abrasive and domineering than I needed to be." In practice, this meant controlling not just presentation, but the direction of policy as well. With Kinnock's backing, he established himself as a broker between the shadow cabinet and the press. All requests for interviews, and all requests to be interviewed, had to go through him. Thus Labour figures he favoured (Blair, Gordon Brown) could be promoted, and ones he disagreed with, who were usually on the left (Michael Meacher, John Prescott) could be sidelined. At the same time, Mandelson used his contacts to find out all he could about the press he was dealing with: when deadlines were, what journalists' reputations and vulnerabilities were, how their bosses could be reached directly. From here, all he needed was his phone manner: flattering or threatening as the situation required. Norman Tebbit, then chairman of the Conservative Party, said he would have hired him if he could.

But all this required endless effort. Mandel-son gave up every Saturday night to phone every Sunday newspaper. And did it make much difference? Labour still lost the 1987 election by a hundred seats; and Mandelson accumulated enemies. In 1988, he applied for a senior job at the BBC. He didn't get it; shortly afterwards, he decided that he wanted to become "a politician in my own own right", after all. Hartlepool beckoned.

MANDELSON says he is happy there. He "loves" the constituency work (the Hartlepool Mail says he is a popular MP). He watches Hartlepool FC. He goes to the multiplex. "My main relaxation is when I go back to my house and I look at... video recordings of comedy programmes that people have made for me. I sit down and watch my Absolutely Fabulous and my One Foot In The Grave and tuck into my Tesco's luxury dairy ice-cream, in front of my fire. I can have my friends round, or I can go to bed. I quite often wake up at 7.30am or 8am. In London, I'm never really able to sleep beyond 6.30am."

There, he has a flat in Clerkenwell, and tries "two evenings a week to do something which is non-political. Be with friends, go to the ballet - I've been to the ballet twice since the beginning of the year... I enjoyed The Glass Menagerie very, very much on Thursday night." He is still close to his mother (his father died eight years ago), and neurotically private. When, before we met, I rang an old partner of his, Mandelson was quickly, angrily on the phone: "The time may come one day when I want to talk about these things, but not now. Not at this stage in my political life."

But what exactly is his "political life"? What "mark" does he want to make? In Tamworth, after his speech, he finally agreed to talk about what all his nervy striving is for. He gave me 45 minutes in a back room. He tried to look relaxed, expansive: leaning back in a chair, hands behind his head, feet up on the desk (before he saw the photographer). "I'm on the way to becoming a politician," he said. "But I've not arrived." When will he know he has? "If we win the next general election, and I'm lucky enough to be offered a job in the government."

The moral purpose of this is less clear: "It's difficult for me to describe it to you. I know what's right. I know what I should be doing..." Earlier, in the car from Wellingborough, he had said that "hopelessness" angered him; otherwise, the two days had passed without reference to injustice, socialism, or conflict of any kind. Some of his critics on the left think that they perceive beliefs - Tony Banks MP portrays them as "a fairly substantial right-wing agenda", and Mandelson does say he is "looking at what parties of the right and Christian Democrats are doing in Europe as well as socialists." But he is not known for his policy commitments. His book is said to echo Blair; he is pro-Europe, yet withdrew his name from a recent Fabian Society pamphlet praising the single currency, when party thinking began to tilt against it. He invokes his grandfather Herbert, who built council houses across London in the Thirties and served in the Cabinet for 10 years, but even this is problematic: Morrison is remembered in the party, in his fellow minister Hugh Dalton's words, as "a sort of informal boss... interfering with everybody and everything."

And his grandson, you suspect, rather likes having all Labour plots traced back to him too. He likes drama. He is still best at talking about the internal means rather than the external end. "Every meeting I attend, every note I write, every proposal I make for others to consider is incremental," Mandelson said, suddenly finding fluency in the grey, strip-lit back room. "The small things are very important in politics: you can trip up, fall flat on your face over the most unexpected things... My job as much as anything is to look for the small things, and make sure that others don't trip over them."

Near the end of our interview, Mandelson got up and crossed the room to check his pager. "It's Ally Pally," he said, half under his breath - Alistair Campbell is Tony Blair's press secretary. Mandelson showed no reaction to the call, but, when his driver came in with a plate of lunch, suggested they leave soon.

In the car to the station, Mandelson put the radio on. It was Radio 4, The World This Weekend, something about Harriet Harman and a grammar school in Kent. His mobile phone rang. He turned up the volume so the caller could hear. When the news story finished, he said "only sixth item", and hung up.

But he was straight out of the car at Birming-ham International. Macintosh turned up against the wind, phone clamped to his ear, walking fast out of earshot across the car park, through the empty station concourse, towards his train back to London. He looked round. "Don't write any of this," he said. !