Politics: Back in the front line - the king of spin shows how to box clever

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It had been a while since Peter Mandelson's last utterance in the House of Commons, and the poor man was clearly overwrought with nerves. What was that about everyone singing from the government hymn sheet? Poor Mr M must have wandered out of his pew and tottered down the road into a completely different church before launching into this fulsome confession:

"Some very serious allegations have been made about the way in which public officials, publicly funded civil servants, are being drawn by ministers into party political activities," he blabbed. "That misuse of civil servants is a disgraceful attack on their neutrality and impartiality."

OK, so I admit it. Mr Mandelson's stout defence of public servants' rights was mounted not yesterday - when the minister without portfolio appeared for the first time to answer questions on the millennium exhibition in Greenwich, south-east London - but in his previous appearance on 11 July 1996.

The man "in the dark" of Clare Short's memorable description does not seem to relish the glare of parliamentary scrutiny. So it was no wonder he looked a little wan when he entered the chamber yesterday. It had been filling up gradually in anticipation of M's long-awaited performance, and Tony Banks - who had just been fielding questions for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport - clearly intended to stick around for the big event. The sports minister dug his colleague in the ribs and gave him what one can only presume was meant to be a gesture of encouragement. It consisted of two clenched fists and a sort of wiggle, reminiscent of the salute that accompanies a cry of "Yesss!!" when a goal is scored.

What we will certainly never know is why poor M was so wound up about the whole thing. Like the true Machiavelli he is, he had it all sorted in advance. His fellow-MPs were allotted just five minutes in which to grill him, about four and a half of which were taken up by a clearly spontaneous question from Labour's Phyllis Starkey (the location of whose Milton Keynes South West seat clearly gives her a deep personal interest in matters pertaining to Greenwich).

What plans, she wanted to know, had the minister got for a transport infrastructure for the exhibition? Amazingly, Mr Mandelson had a reply ready: there would be "park and sail" facilities sited all over London in order to ease the passage of the good people of Bedfordshire on their way to the dome, he told her. Dr Starkey, naturally surprised and delighted, thanked him profusely.

An earnest contribution from the Liberal Democrats' Simon Hughes, a quick dig from the Tories about how nice it was to welcome Mr Mandelson back after such a long absence, and that was it.

By now, the minister was looking relaxed and relieved. But just in case we were in any doubt about how nervous he was, the Secretary of State for Culture, Chris Smith, gave him a fatherly pat on the back as the two left the chamber together. "How sweet," we all thought. "Isn't it nice what good friends Mr Mandelson has?"