Mandelson stories are like those about the SAS, which cannot be denied: stories about him can be, but the denials are never believed. Yet one of the oddest aspects of all this is that it has at its heart a 22-carat contradiction. If he is such a brilliant, self serving schemer, hell-bent on advancing his own cause, why does he keep doing rather crass things which the most junior student politician could see can only undermine that very cause?
Since publishing a biography of Peter Mandelson in April, I have had no contact with him. I cannot, therefore, prove that he has not been whispering in the ear of every journalist willing to listen that the Prime Minister intends to make him Secretary of State for Defence. But I am willing to bet he hasn't.
For every story speculating that Mandelson will become Defence Secretary makes it more, rather than less, difficult for Tony Blair to give him the job, always assuming he had the slightest intention of doing so in the first place. As it happens, I am told by a "friend" of Mandelson - in the genuine sense rather than the euphemistic one meaning the man himself - that he (Mandelson) confidently expects the eminently well qualified Dr John Reid to get the job. But even if he didn't, the surest way of creating a substantial body of opposition to his own appointment to the job would be to allow it to be thought that it might happen, let alone to promote his candidacy himself. Which Mandelson, who has knocked about in politics a bit, has easily enough wit and experience to realise. And even if he did not - which he certainly does - he would have rather painfully learned that lesson from what happened when he was punted as a potential Northern Ireland Secretary before the July reshuffle. Again, I very much doubt - despite the almost universal assumption to the contrary - that Mandelson was responsible for that speculation. It was given the greatest impetus when senior Ulster Unionist sources - at a briefing at which I happened to be present - strongly indicated he would be David Trimble's preferred candidate for the job. My guess is that the Prime Minister did indeed briefly consider promoting Mo Mowlam and replacing her with Mandelson. But once the story was out and about, it allowed opposition to develop rather rapidly to the whole idea - not least in the mind of Dr Mowlam herself.
Ah, the worldly-wise will say, but isn't it just that it? The contradiction isn't in the perception of Mandelson, it's there in the man himself. If he was not capable of being stupid as well as brilliant, why would he ever have taken that loan from Geoffrey Robinson and then kept it secret? This is a nice try; but it doesn't quite work. To compare the two is a mistake. To do what he is claimed to be doing now would cross the obsessive line which Mandelson himself, with catastrophic results, drew between the political and the personal. Of course journalist X may talk casually to his pal politico Z who may also be a pal of Mandelson's and who may acknowledge - without the prior or subsequent knowledge, let alone approval, of Mandelson - the following facts:
1. There will be a vacancy for the Defence job in October.
2. Peter Mandelson would like to be in the Cabinet. Under the new journalism's perverse laws that now counts as Mandelson lobbying for the job. In fact most political reporters have vivid and direct experience of politicians openly touting themselves for promotion. And this is not it.
But there is in any case a more banal truth, almost certainly well understood by the man himself. Mandelson is not holding the cards. He did indeed lobby during the second quarter of 1998 against being given a Cabinet job in an "enforcer" role, rather than having his own department. But at that stage, though this is easily forgotten in hindsight, he had real clout. The circumstances are very - and correctly - different now. Indeed there are some grounds for thinking that if Blair had chosen in the reshuffle to make him a Minister of State, below Cabinet rank, he would have happily taken it. And he has made 14 trips to rather unglamorous and unpublicised regional and local Labour events since March.
But once, in defiance of all this, the on dit is that Mandelson is pitching for the Defence job, then anything goes. It is immediately said that anonymous, but senior armed services officers are in revolt against the idea. For the record, I'm told that Sir Charles Guthrie, the Chief of Defence Staff, has a notably high opinion of his abilities, having been especially appreciative of his intervention on behalf of the department during the Strategic Defence Review, which Sir Charles thought rather important. But in any case it would be odd if a man - who was not only a long-time opponent of unilateralism, but explicitly intervened to ensure the party's new Clause IV in 1995 admitted of the possibility that a Labour government might go to war - was thought intrinsically unsuitable to run Defence.
One alleged ground for opposition, those of Mandelson's sexuality, seem especially pitiful as the 21st century approaches, and when the Government will probably have to change the obsolete laws on gays in the military to conform with an expected European judgement. There are no doubt good arguments against Mandelson replacing Robertson in October, but other than in the most cravenly and short-term presentational sense, this isn't one of them.
More telling is the case that there is an entirely credible alternative, and that it is simply too early. Certainly, Blair would ideally like to harness Mandelson's exceptional talents to the government machine once again - and probably before the next election. He would surely like him once again to manage the next general election campaign while, as in 1997, Gordon Brown runs the strategy for it. But the obsessive flutter of press attention that attends even the smallest things he does is a real problem. It is not impossible, though pretty difficult, to believe that Blair will boldly cause major headaches not only for the new Liberal Democrat Leader Charles Kennedy, but for his own party managers by offering the Defence job to Paddy Ashdown. It still remains likelier that he will appoint the former armed forces minister, Dr Reid.
But the point is that no-one yet knows, including Mandelson. Some of his past behaviour may well be to blame for the obsessive attention he attracts now, and that makes the timing of his return so delicate. But I very much doubt he is now doing a quarter of the things attributed to him - if only because the stakes are so high.