Wednesday Book: Shedding light on darkness

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KEY QUESTIONS arise out of the meteoric career of Peter Mandelson. First, should we regard him as the essence of New Labour? Second, is he to be viewed solely as a consummate operator, or as a leader with ideas and vision? On the answers may hang not just Mandelson's own future, but also the direction of a party which - for all its proven ability to govern - appears uncertain about where it is heading. Thus the second Mandelson biography this year is about much more than a character who has captured the end-of-century political mood. It is a parable of our times.

Inevitably, Donald Macintyre covers a lot of the same ground as Paul Routledge, whose pre-publication revelations sparked the resignation of the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Nevertheless, there are differences that justify a rival work. Routledge's book was a political attack, aimed at his subject's jugular. Macintyre's, by contrast, is semi-official, with selective access to Mandelson's papers, family, friends and even his thoughts.

Such sources add detail and authenticity while meaning, of course, that the author is beholden. Yet if Macintyre is a friend, he is also a relentlessly probing one. The result is a painstaking, fascinating study, written with pace and sensitivity, which also provides the first stab at a serious history of New Labour.

The Mandelson who emerges is the one we love or hate, but also one who is notably more complex. Routledge sees him from the cradle as a conspirator. Macintyre's portrait is of a highly emotional man driven by strange passions.

In one sense, Mandelson was born to the Labour purple: there could be few better starts for a putative left-wing politician than a mother who was the daughter of Herbert Morrison and an upbringing in Hampstead Garden Suburb. In practice, however, the connection seems to have been tantalising rather than intimate. Despite a place on Downing Street invitation lists, Mary Mandelson was anti-political. Macintyre reveals that she has yet to visit the Commons to hear her son make a speech. It could be that in entering politics, Peter was not so much being true to his background as in pursuit of forbidden fruit.

Certainly, politics seems to have been a largely absent element in Mandelson's happy, middle-middle-class childhood. There was no exceptional talent. As a teenager, he got involved in the British Youth Council. At Oxford, he was an assertive if not cocky young man, well in control of his goals. He "always knew what he wanted and got it", according to his older brother. At the same time, he had a "knack of making you want to belong to his gang". Some saw him as a cold fish. Macintyre presents him as somebody who became wrapped up in the lives of his associates, fusing their desires with his own.

Exactly when he settled on a political career is not clear. Macintyre thinks that he kept the endgame in mind while concentrating on the present. Certainly, the theory that each move was part of a master plan cannot easily cope with his membership of the Young Communist League. At first, he seems to have been more hedonist than strategist. His early post-university career was typical of the fringe-political world of researchers and left- wing journalists of the 1970s and early 1980s who moved between trade- union offices, television studios and bottle parties held in innumerable squalid London flats. Somebody should make a film about this incestuous milieu, and no doubt will.

The crucial break came when Mandelson was made publicity director for the fast-recuperating Labour Party in 1985. In politics, timing is everything, and it is arguable that he was as much the beneficiary of Labour's climb- back as the cause of it. He was good at being in the right place: his reputation as a magician derived both from his presence at what Private Eye called Labour's "brilliantly successful defeat" in 1987, and his absence (fighting Hartlepool) at the time of its disappointment five years later.

During this time, Mandelson's intense attachments slid from Kinnock and Bryan Gould to Brown and Blair, with whom he formed a now-famous love triangle. Before this broke down - as it was bound to - Mandelson the media professional exercised an influence on the other two that cannot be overestimated. The author shows him as a brave pioneer - before John Smith's death in 1994: "Journalists used to write of the modernisers as Brown, Blair and Mandelson et al, but in fact there was no et al." Where Routledge presents the Prince of Darkness as Blair's Iago, Macintyre offers the image of a courageous crusader for realism.

The portrait of Mandelson as a human being is contradictory yet strangely attractive, conveying the hypnotic quality, the infectious compulsiveness. He does not obscure the flaws; in particular (as Derek Draper puts it with feline precision) the self-obsession and social climbing.

What next? The author speculates about conflicting inclinations within his subject "towards a private-sector standard of life and his public- service commitment". In fact, there can be little real conflict: politics is his heroin. More important are conflicting considerations within Downing Street, between the heat that would be generated by having him back and the pressing need for his counsel.

Would the Cabinet have embarked on a risky Balkan war if Mandelson's media antennae had been available? Will the worsening Nato crisis - or something quite unexpected - precipitate his return? The sequel will be grist for a third volume. Meanwhile, this absorbing book feels like an unfinished story.

The reviewer is Warden of Goldsmiths College, London, and the biographer of Harold Wilson