Mandelson's fall: One had charisma, the other cash

Last week's ministerial resignations lifted the lid on New Labour's approach to politics, writes Rachel Sylvester
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PETER MANDELSON has always been a political pop star. While other politicians read Hansard in bed and drink Earl Grey in the Commons tearooms, he swans off to the Ministry of Sound, shares champagne with Prince Charles and sips Martinis with Chris Evans. He dresses in Armani, talks to Kevin Maxwell on the treadmill in his swanky gym, eats breakfast with Carla Powell - and, of course, has a now-famous house next to Princess Charlotte of Luxembourg in fashionable Notting Hill.

Like all pop stars, the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry adores being the centre of attention, loves to shock and is addicted to taking risks. His controlled image (he is manically tidy and obsessed with being fit) is an attempt to cover up his real desires - "If you've ever been shopping with him you know he's not really controlled", one friend said. He drinks hot water with lemon in public but only because he is afraid of what he will do if he takes anything stronger.

The character of Geoffrey Robinson is just as extraordinary. This brilliant businessman, self-made millionaire and successful politician is desperate to be liked. He hands out pounds 50 notes, invitations to his Tuscan palazzo and tickets for football matches like sweeties with all the insecurity of a teenage boy. Although he bought a football club and the New Statesman in an attempt to win friends in the Labour Party, if you imply he likes the flashy life on the terraces he insists: "I don't own a camel coat, just a duffel coat." He gave up his chauffeur-driven Daimler when he became a minister because he thought it would portray "the wrong image". But he lives in a penthouse at the Grosvenor House Hotel because he is too rich to ever do his own washing-up.

These are two men - one the son of an advertising executive on the Jewish Chronicle, the other the son of a furniture salesman - who have reinvented themselves in order to fit in. They are both outsiders desperate to be part of the establishment: Mr Mandelson keeps his invitation to Prince Charles's 50th birthday on his mantelpiece; Mr Robinson shows off his old-fashioned good taste with Edwin Lutyens mansions.

One had the charisma but not the money to be a star, the other had the cash but lacked the friends to get ahead. And this, perhaps, is the explanation for the deal which turned into a suicide pact. "Peter was living beyond his means, pretending to be something he's not and therefore he was beholden to people," a friend of the former Trade Secretary said.

"He's obsessed by the glamour of politics. He's like an 18th-century courtier, wanting to be a part of the social whirl, in a progress from coffee house to coffee house. Having a wonderful place in Notting Hill allowed him to live that life."

At the same time, Mr Robinson was trying to elbow his way into New Labour's inner circle. "If you don't have a political base, you don't have support in the party - you have got to buy your way back in," a government adviser said. "This means Geoffrey is the nuclear bomb at the heart of New Labour because he did so much."

The downfall of Mandelson and Robinson does indeed raise questions about the future of Tony Blair's "project". Like the two aspirational politicians, the Labour Party has reinvented itself, pretending to be something it has never been in the past.

"Perhaps this was all a terrible New Labour thing, the battle scars of having got it all done," one Labour insider said. "It's about having it all, enjoying both sides too much - whether that's old and new Labour or politics and glamour."

The former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry had not realised just how bad it would be when the details of his pounds 373,000 loan from Mr Robinson became public. But he had known it would not be good, which was why he had buried his head in the sand and hoped it would go away.

Mr Mandelson had found out the week before that Paul Routledge, the Mirror journalist and a friend of Charlie Whelan, Gordon Brown's press secretary, was planning to publish the revelation in his forthcoming Mandelson biography.

On 17 December he telephoned Tony Blair to warn him about the imminent publication of the loan story. He also told Michael Scholar, the Permanent Secretary at the DTI. Although Mr Blair was in the middle of dealing with the Gulf air strikes, a frantic round of meetings ensued.

The Mandelson camp was convinced the Treasury was behind the leak and considered planting a pre-emptive story last weekend to spike Routledge's guns. Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary, dismissed the approach because he thought the Govern- ment should be concentrating on Iraq. By Monday of last week, however, the Guardian was on to the story and a crisis meeting was convened in Mr Mandelson's office at the DTI. He decided to issue a statement, confirming details of the loan, then undertook blanket media interviews denying that he had done anything wrong.

At that point he believed he could hang on, but by Tuesday morning things looked blacker. Questions were being asked about whether Mr Mandelson had declared the loan on his mortgage application form - it seems clear that he did not. At 10pm that night, he telephoned Mr Blair in a tearful state to tell him he was planning to resign. The Prime Minister did not try to dissuade him but asked him to sleep on it before coming to a decision. Things were no better in the morning and Mr Mandelson decided he had to leave the Government.

He wanted to make an announcement before Mr Robinson because he was unwilling to be "tarred with the same brush" as the Paymaster-General, whose business affairs were under scrutiny. But before going public, the Trade Secretary faxed Mr Brown asking him for his advice. The Chancellor talked Labour's spin-doctor through what to say to the media. Mr Mandelson then faxed his resignation letter to Mr Brown before sending it to the Prime Minister. The Chancellor made a few alterations and faxed it back. Mr Mandelson then sent the letter to Number 10.

Mr Mandelson went for his last engagement as Trade Secretary: lunch with the Governor of the Bank of England, Eddie George. "Don't talk to me about interest rates," he is reported to have said. He cancelled a plan to open the Crisis at Christmas warehouse - the charity's name seemed to have an unforeseen relevance to his own career.

By the time Mr Mandelson talked to Mr Robinson on Wednesday, there was little that either could say. The "carnage", as one adviser put it, was complete. Last week showed that pop stars no longer have a place in politics. What remains to be seen is how much more damage the downfall of these two "exotic" political characters can do to the Government, in whose election both had played such key roles.