Mandelson: 'Blair and I will still be friends ... but I will do my own thing'

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Indy Politics

If his many enemies think they have seen the last of Peter Mandelson, they may be disappointed - again. He may be heading to the European Commission in Brussels, but he will still be ready and willing to give informal advice to Tony Blair.

If his many enemies think they have seen the last of Peter Mandelson, they may be disappointed - again. He may be heading to the European Commission in Brussels, but he will still be ready and willing to give informal advice to Tony Blair.

"We don't cease being friends or allies just because I am working in Brussels for the bulk of the week," Mr Mandelson told The Independent yesterday. "Of course we can talk and no doubt will. But having said that, we will be that much farther apart and I will be busy doing my own thing rather more than I have been."

When he resigned from the Cabinet, for the second time, in 2001 over the Hinduja passports affair, he was bitterly disappointed at being abandoned by Mr Blair and told me his departure was "the parting of the ways". Of course, it was no such thing. After a year in exile, he returned to the backroom role he seems destined to perform for Mr Blair, holding weekly meetings with Alastair Campbell. Since Mr Campbell's departure from Downing Street last September, Mr Mandelson has helped to fill the vacuum.

Although his recent day-to-day involvement will cease, Mr Blair is bound to consult him over strategy, especially with a general election looming next May. "My loyalty will be to the body of which I am becoming a member. It doesn't mean, though, that I stop being New Labour to the core," he said yesterday.

Shouldn't he keep out of party politics? After all, Romano Prodi, the outgoing president of the Commission, has caused controversy by running a campaign in his native Italy. Mr Mandelson said his advisory role would be "absolutely different" to Mr Prodi's. "He has been campaigning with his face on election posters doing two jobs - president of the Commission and would-be leader of the left coalition in Italy. Nobody thinks that it is a good idea and I am not going to emulate it."

For the man nicknamed "the Prince of Darkness", Mr Blair's offer of a second political comeback was double-edged. It appears that the Prime Minister made it clear that he would be quite happy if his friend turned down the Brussels post. That would enable him to play a main role in the election campaign and, possibly, return to the Cabinet after the election. Mr Mandelson, 50, thought he could withstand the intense media attention that would bring. Many ministers and MPs, who regard him as trouble, disagree.

Mr Mandelson's hasty second resignation was one of Mr Blair's worst moments as Prime Minister, especially as the former Northern Ireland Secretary was later cleared of any wrongdoing by the official inquiry into the Hinduja affair. Mr Blair felt dutybound to offer him the Brussels post, while being reluctant to see his close ally leave his side.

"We are bound together - it's not easy for either of us," said Mr Mandelson, explaining why he thought hard about accepting a job that most people in his position would have jumped at.

In the end, the ardent Europhile opted for a new public life in Brussels rather than his shadowy role in No 10. "I have been a member of Parliament. No one can say I have been inconspicuous, whether in government or not," he said.

"But it is a different life and I think I need that, even though I will miss many things about my old life - mainly the constituency I have represented in the Commons. That is a very special link and bond in British politics. It's not one that all Continental politicians have. It is a real wrench. Being a member of the House of Commons is the best thing you could wish for. More than that, going to Brussels means leaving Hartlepool."

One factor in his decision was to break away from the persistent in-fighting between supporters of Mr Blair and Gordon Brown. His departure could ease the tensions. His own relationship with the Chancellor has not recovered since he backed Mr Blair for the Labour leadership in 1994. He suspects the feud contributed to his first resignation, as Trade and Industry Secretary, in 1998 over a £373,000 home loan from the former paymaster general Geoffrey Robinson, a Brown ally.

"The Prime Minister and Chancellor are a good team. I support them. I have always supported them and I will continue to do so," he said. "There are a lot of times when the media describe politics, they are describing only how they imagine it to be. But inevitably there are tensions. There will be tensions in any government or political organisation. No doubt there are a few in Brussels."

A COMMISSIONER'S LIFE

By Stephen Castle

When Peter Mandelson steps into his office in the gleaming, newly refurbished, Berlaymont building in November, he will be joining one of the most elite clubs in international politics. The team of 25 commissioners will boast at least two ex-premiers and a clutch of former foreign ministers.

They will move between Brussels, the EU's other bases in Strasbourg and Luxembourg, and the capitals of the continent. Those with the top portfolios can have the power to determine the fate of multinational corporations or shape the terms of global trade.

Although Mr Mandelson said yesterday that he would serve as "commissioner for paperclips" if asked to do so, both he and the British Government will be arguing that, as a big hitter, he deserves a top job. In theory all commissioners are equal but, as in Animal Farm, some are more equal than others. The Competition commissioner can even block mergers of US multinationals, if they operate in the EU.

Mr Mandelson will find the schedule and travel tough. Many commissioners work 12 hour days and, though the perks are impressive, they fall well short of the "gravy train" image. Neil Kinnock lives in a modest town house while Chris Patten has a comfortable flat with a fine view looking out over the Cinquantenaire Park.

The gross salary is worth €217,279.68 (£143,893) plus a residence allowance worth 15 per cent of the same sum and a one-off relocation payment of €36,213.28.

There is no chef, but with 3,000 restaurants to chose from in Brussels this is a limited hardship. And commissioners can claim from an allowance for entertaining with an annual ceiling of €11,702.

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