The Mandelson loan: Exotic in both his plumage and connections

Click to follow
The Independent Online
PETER MANDELSON'S description of himself (and the Treasury minister Geoffrey Robinson) as "exotic" yesterday in an interview on Radio 4's Today programme shows self-awareness, if nothing else.

It is not every day that a front-rank politician secures a loan of pounds 373,000 from a ministerial colleague to buy a handsome house in Notting Hill. And as with his London home, so with his choice of well-off or well-connected friends from Lady Carla Powell to Sir John Birt, from James Palumbo to Bob Ayling.

So too, with his plumage, which has progressed from the vulpine, bearded, V-neck sweater look of his early 20s to what one over-enthusiastic Evening Standard writer last year described as "style God". Contrary to one of the many urban myths, he doesn't have his shoes hand-made, but he does buy the odd pounds 500 suit at the discreet City tailors Couch and Hoskins. Exotic is about right.

Part, though only part, of the fascination with Mr Mandelson's lifestyle (as opposed to the rather different questions of whether the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry should have declared his loan much earlier or accepted it all) is a hangover from Labour's rigorous asceticism of early 1980s - a period Mr Mandelson has devoted his political career to expunging from the party's folk memory.

Several of the previous generation of Labour politicians were rich like Harold Lever, well-connected socially like Roy Jenkins, fashionably domiciled like Hugh Gaitskell, or enjoyed the patronage of a wealthy and powerful man, like Michael Foot with Lord Beaverbrook. Mr Foot, moreover, recounts in his biography of Aneurin Bevan how freely his great left-wing hero mingled with Beaverbrook in "the strange company" of Lord Castelrosse and Brendan Bracken, shrugging off the latter's description of him as a Bollinger Bolshevik by asking:"Why shouldn't I like good wine? The best I've ever had from you, by the way Brendan, I'd call bottom lower class Bolshevik Bollinger."

Bevan was a full-blooded socialist, in a way that Mr Mandelson, by any stretch of the imagination, is not. Yet the paradox is that Mr Mandelson remains, for all his many enemies, as tribalistically loyal to Labour as Bevan was.

Last month, causing edgy irritation among some of his closest friends, he was the only

cabinet minister to attend the Prince of Wales's 50th birthday party. Yet according to Margaret McDonagh, Labour's new general secretary, he is one of the very few senior Labour politicians who will, if asked, change his plans to attend a party function in some unfashionable suburb at short notice.

Last Friday night, he was in Hartlepool dispensing copious amounts of wine, beer, Scotch, Bacardi, orange juice, pies sausage rolls, and vol- au-vents, at the Christmas celebration he throws every year for his distinctly old Labour constituency elite - solicitously dispensing gifts of House of Commons fudge to the most special party activists like Elsie Reed, agent for over two decades to his predecessor Ted Leadbitter, and showing every sign of enjoying himself.

The contrast between his two homes, the one rapidly becoming one of the most famous private residences in London, and the four-bedroom semi in Hutton Avenue, Hartlepool that he bought for pounds 84,000 shortly after his selection as a parliamentary candidate, underline the two sides of Mr Mandelson the man.

The interior of the narrow three-storey Georgian house in Notting Hill's Northumberland Place, all white walls and, in the ground- floor kitchen diner, gleaming stainless steel work-surfaces, is a temple of minimalism designed by the fashionable architect Seth Stein. The Hutton Avenue home, with its large, homely and unmodernised kitchen, its cluttered, old-fashioned living room, lives and breathes Mandelson the Labourist.

This is where he keeps many of his most precious family photographs, the framed copy of his maiden speech in Hansard, the cod issue of The Guardian mocked up as memento for his 40th birthday, the front page of Pravda commemorating the day Gerald Kaufman buried Labour's unilateralist defence policy at a Red Square press conference, and the Vicky cartoons of his revered grandfather Herbert Morrison. Many of his books are also here: the diaries of Dick Crossman and Harold Nicholson, rubbing shoulders with Lewis Minkin's dauntingly forbidding work on the history of the Labour Party Conference.

There is no sign - as he chops vegetables for a stew, or prepares a breakfast fry-up, with one eye on the ancient black and white television set on the kitchen table - that he is any less at home here. Indeed it has a particular sentimental importance. It was in this welcoming redoubt that he spent much of his four "wilderness years", two of them nursing his seat after leaving his job as director of communications in 1989, and two of them as a backbench MP struggling to come to terms with the fact that he was anything but a favourite of John Smith, the then party leader.

A recent poll by the Hartlepool Mail after Mr Mandelson was "outed" on BBC television showed overwhelming support from the local population, who seemed understandably to have regarded him as a victim under pressure, entitled to his privacy. But even these remarkably easy-going constituents are going to be baffled that he had to borrow this kind of sum to locate himself in a house in Northumberland Place rather than stay in a flat that he could afford without extra help.

He is not wholly alone, of course; both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have benefited from Mr Robinson's hospitality, though not on the spectacular scale of the loan to Mr Mandelson in 1996. But many of his fellow MPs will seize on it as evidence that his appetite for the good life has got the better of his hitherto legendary political judgement.

There is no doubt that even some of his close, long-standing, and loyal friends get knotted up about him - saying he has left them behind as he mingles with the rich and famous, and then in the same breath that they know he would visit them in hospital or rally round if they were in trouble.

He may also have revealed something of the outsider thirsting for life on the inside. And by not sharing with the Prime Minister his means of financing his house, he may have demonstrated a deep-seated tendency to hoard information.

It may even be a sign of his willingness to take a gamble. If he wasn't a bit of a gambler he would hardly have risked the humiliation of failing to win election to Labour's National Executive Committee in the summer of 1997. He may need to show some of the same humility now that he managed to show then.

Part of the Mandelson paradox is an unusual lack of willingness to play to the politically correct or party gallery. Unusually for a hitherto upwardly mobile politician, he apparently doesn't want to be - or think he could become - prime minister, despite odd articles in the last month or two suggesting that he could.

As a result, he is much less willing than most of his colleagues to make concessions either to party orthodoxy in what he says or he does, or to yield to what he appears genuinely to dismiss as a metropolitan and liberal view that he should say the words "I am gay".

He believes he has been working more than his fair share of 18-hour days to see Labour get elected and prosper in government. For the rest, he certainly wants enjoy himself in the way he wants; and believes that it is no one's business but his own. This is controversy, for him and the Government, on a scale even this relentlessly controversial politician has not encountered before. But then, whatever else, no one has ever accused him of lacking the appetite for a fight.