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TUC Conference: Words of friendship from man in a sharp suit

The Sketch
THE BALLROOM of the Winter Gardens is an old-time symphony of plaster elegance, all red plush balconies, ornate rhomboids in the ceiling and winged gryphons looking down on the whirling throng. Except that, at conference time, a shocking irruption of steel mesh girders turns the noble room into a vile modernist installation piece: steel lighting gantry, steel lectern, steel video screen...

Would Peter Mandelson bring some New Labour steel to the plaster cherubs and globe chandeliers of the ancient palais de danse that is British trade unionism? Or did he have something else on his mind as he sat between John Edmonds and John Monks, smiling into a point-blank barrage of cameras as he waited to speak.

It was a big moment - his first speech to the TUC, his first big, public speech as Trade and Industry Secretary, his first real-life address to the Labour movement en masse.

He looked immaculate in dark suit, red tie, blinding white shirt and matching teeth. But as he looked this way and that before the exploding lights, you could see he was nervous.

At the podium, a delegate was banging on about "crooks and spivs" in Russia - Mandelson's grin was fixed. Were they having a go? When John Edmonds introduced him, joshingly as - "a TUC employee who's made good" (Mandelson once worked at Congress House in his early 20s), was there a hint of lese majeste in the air?

He needn't have worried - Mandelson was never likely to tread on anyone's toes in this crucially important ballroom. Not for nothing had he sat, re-writing draft after draft with his distracted PPS, all the way from Euston on the 6.35pm the night before.

This was a speech with everything in it that could buy friends, win supporters, convert the sceptical. He paraded his TUC credentials (without mentioning that he parted company from them acrimoniously, after his precocious visit to James Callaghan in Downing Street).

He praised his Minister of State, Ian McCartney, a portly Congress glad- hander last seen schmoozing in the bar of the Stakis Hotel at 1am in his green, golfing-tourist T-shirt.

Mandy even dragged in his own grandfather to illustrate how the unions saved the Labour Party in the Thirties. He praised the unions for being unions. Look at me, he seemed to say - I'm your friend. We can work this out together. He did everything to woo Congress short of actually calling it "Darling" and taking it out for lunch at Robert's Oyster Bar

It was all a little too simple. He emphasised partnership, harmony, mutual respect and co-operation - all words which, if you looked them up in Roget's Thesaurus, you'd find under the heading of "union".

He said John Prescott had been right. And Gordon Brown was right. And the Tories were all wrong. He told Congress they could trust him, (Phew). He told them he believed in unions. (What a relief). He told them that, from now on, they'd get only candour, straight-talking "and no more spin - honest". A shout of laughter went up, as the delegates considered the phenomenon of a leopard promising an end to all that spots nonsense. Mandelson is not an accomplished actor - there's something too contained and held- in about him, with those minimal hand movements, that angular, Easter- Island-statue head - but he did a fair impersonation of a schoolteacher congratulating Class 3b on their needlework. How sensible their debate on the single currency had been. How right they were to worry about safe working conditions. Well done. His own preference, he told them, was for unions that were "modern, democratic, representative and influential, as if the hall might be full of people who "preferred" some other kind.

But just at the moments when they might have felt weary of being patronised by this sharp-suited, perma-smiling reassurance salesman, he did something brilliant. He regarded the shirt-sleeved, bearded and truculent delegates sitting sideways on their metal chairs, holding their mimeographed resolutions, and did the political equivalent of diving off the stage.

"I know some of you..."(pause) "... in this hall..."(pause) "... will have a bigger question at the back of your minds." (Pause).

The audience's collective brain raced. What could the question be? "Where did you get that suit?" "Would you recommend a Nokia 500 or a Motorola 750 for motorway conversations?" "What's the capital of Uruguay?". But no - the question was, "Where do you think, Peter, the trade unions fit into your bright, knowledge-based future?" Neat, eh? The answer was as banal as you'd expect. But telling the conference that when they addressed him they naturally called him "Peter" - now, that was a masterstroke.

After that they were putty in his hands. Instead of mentally saying, "Look here, Mandelson, you bastard ...", the union members mentally tried a different tack - "Peter? Have you got a minute ...?"

For all his hark-at-me self-deprecation about image and spin, playing the personality card turned out to be Mandelson's winner after all.