How We Met: Ben Evans & Peter Mandelson

'The public view of Peter is a gross distortion of the private Peter I know'
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The Independent Online

Ben Evans 45 is the director of the London Design Festival. Previously, he worked for Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair on policy development and campaigns including the 1992 and 1997 Labour election campaigns and helped oversee the contents of the Millennium Dome for its launch. He lives in London with his wife and four children

I was always rather impressed by Peter. He brought a level of professionalism to campaigning that we hadn't seen before. In the 1980s it was close to shambolic. I worked with Neil Kinnock on the 1992 campaign and Peter was always thinking of how everything would look on TV, trying to make the best pictures out of the circumstances.

The public view of Peter is a gross distortion of the private Peter I know. When he moved into politics I felt frustrated that the gregarious, witty, uber-urbane person I knew didn't come over. He's the perfect weekend guest, for example. He'll arrive with presents for the children, be impeccably polite to elderly relatives, tell lots of witty anecdotes and send a lovely letter after he's gone. He's always keen to meet people, interested in lots of things and just so funny in a witty, wry way.

He is also the most fantastic person to go to for advice; he always gives you very objective views – and you can really trust him. A lot of people find it hard to think big but he does it brilliantly.

His public perception is complicated by the relationship he had with the press – he was one of the four founding fathers of New Labour and part of his job was offering advice on how to work with the media. That can be a confrontational role.

I don't know who coined the phrase "Prince of Darkness", but we would joke about it. I remember once he made some sort of dark remark and I said, "Don't play the Prince of Darkness with me," and he said "Play the Prince of Darkness? I AM the Prince of Darkness!" so he was able to look at it with wry amusement.

Working with Peter on the Millennium Dome was the hardest job I've ever had. We had very little time to put together something that was true to the vision and also an experience people would enjoy.

The Dome became Peter's soft under-belly. A number of journalists said it was an easy way to get at him. I thought that was unfair. Throughout it all, he never let on if he was upset. He's made of tough stuff.

When he left the cabinet for the second time, I think it was a rather rushed decision and it was about other stuff going on at the time. And I think there is regret, now, that someone as talented as Peter was lost from mainstream UK politics.

Peter Mandelson 54 is the EU Commissioner for Trade. He was previously Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Secretary of Trade and Industry, and MP for Hartlepool. He divides his time between Brussels and London with his dog.

I've known Ben for nearly 20 years. He first appeared when Neil Kinnock was Labour Party leader. He was young, charming and Baroness Blackstone's son – all of which were great qualifications.

At the 1992 election he embarked on his career of advancing the party leader's tour, which meant making sure that the venue was perfect, the reception ecstatic and that no glitch could provide a distraction for the media.

I met Ben again when he came to work in the Millennium Dome, where he combined creativity, charm, good people skills and judgment, which was much-needed at the Dome.

I provided a lightning conductor for all the criticism of the Dome. I knew it at the time, but didn't realise how unfair the criticism would become – and it did become personal, which I think contributed directly to my departure from the Government, so it doesn't exactly have happy memories for me.

On the other hand, I was very proud of its success – it was a fine piece of architecture, it opened on time and on budget. All the opinion polls said the public liked it, but you'd never know that from the coverage it got.

Ben was a foul-weather friend. He would always pop up when I was being pushed down. He has great calm and has a sunny, optimistic personality.

I was in Milan two years ago and he heard I was there and invited me to dinner. He is such fun and has such nice friends and it was a really nice evening; it reminded me of the people I miss in London.

It's incredibly difficult to maintain friendships in London and I've feared at points that people will forget about me, or stop bothering to invite me because I'm hardly ever here. But when I come back permanently, in autumn 2009, I know there will be people with whom I can pick up again – and one of those will be Ben.

I think there are a lot of friendships like ours in politics; most politicians' best friends are not in politics. It's very hard to keep real friends in politics.

Tony Blair and I were never not friends. When I left the cabinet for the second time, I don't like what happened but I don't dwell on it. It was Tony's responsibility, but it wasn't his fault. I don't harbour grudges.

The London Design Festival runs until 23 September at various locations across London. For details of venues and dates, visit www.londondesignfestival.com

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