The Long View, Radio 4

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The Independent Culture

When I first heard that The Long View was going to compare and contrast Peter Mandelson and Cardinal Richelieu, a vision entered my head. It featured – deep breath – Baron Mandelson of Foy in the county of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the county of Durham (quiet at the back) done up like Conrad Black in that famous photo on his way into a high-class fancy dress party with his fragrant wife on his arm dressed as Marie Antoinette.

In fact I became convinced in my own mind that I'd seen Mandy in a similar get-up (as Cardinal R, I mean, not Marie A), but a fruitless trawl through Google Images suggests it was a figment of my fevered imagination. The vision persists, however – and, as Jonathan Freedland discovered, the similarities between the two Mr Fix-its are remarkable.

Both came from solid middle-class backgrounds, with high-achieving fathers; both suffered exile from which they made triumphant returns (twice, in Mandy's case); both made huge successes of their day jobs. Both had dilemmas when they weren't sure which horse to back (the queen mother Marie de Medici versus Louis XIII in Richelieu's case, Tony Blair vs Gordon Brown in Mandy's) – and when they'd made their decision, the matter was settled.

Both, too, were intensely aware of the fact that politics is all about presentation. Richelieu travelled tirelessly to keep France on-message, built up his own group of pamphleteers and even started a weekly newspaper. Mandelson has never quite been able to go that far, but he was always assiduous in his attention to the papers most hostile to Labour. The former political editor of The Sun, Trevor Kavanagh, recalled how Mandy would stand behind reporters as they typed, telling them, "You can't say that! You can't say that!" And, according to Kavanagh, they didn't.

Freedland spoke to other Westminster hacks, among them our own John Rentoul, who rather admired Baron Mandy; Kavanagh was the hostile witness – so vehemently, in fact, you felt you couldn't really trust anything he said (not trust a Sun man? Come off it!). Still, it made for entertaining listening. Mandelson, he said, is "the ultimate courtier, like Richelieu, drawn like a moth to power" – that's why he became the force behind Blair and not the force behind Brown – "and it's naked power that's brought him back to Gordon Brown's side today".

And what that means, as Rentoul pointed out, is that Brown's political future is in Mandy's hands. Who's the daddy? I'm the daddy!