Focus: How a clever spinner became the big story

Peter Mandelson lost his cool. It had been a bad week, and he had his eye on higher things. John Prescott, the old fixer, watched from the sidelines

It was all going so well. The setting was impeccably New Labour. Chamber music instead of the faintly manic "Things Can Only Get Better" pop theme of the general election. A bowl of red roses. A white backdrop with the simple message "Delivering to the People". John Prescott at his most nonchalantly grim. Glossy folders trumpeting the government's achievements.

This was Labour's One Hundred Days propaganda extravaganza at Millbank last Friday morning: the occasion when Peter Mandelson lost his legendary cool. Lost it spectacularly.

The Minister without Portfolio, who has had a difficult week (it started badly and fell away) rounded on a questioner who had asked about his role in government in relationship to Tony Blair, who had been repositioned as the United Kingdom's chief executive, Tony Blair. It was a perfectly reasonable question. After all, for ten days now Mandelson has given the impression that he is the deputy chief executive, whose own broad remit covers all departments.

Mandelson handled the DTI minister Lord Simon's embarrassment over his BP shares. Mandelson appeared to take the credit for the Treasury plan to enlist City finance to keep the royal yacht afloat. Mandelson intervened in the "official secrets" row between the Foreign Office and the former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten. And now here he was co-presenting the Hundred Days Show with Prescott, who actually holds the job of Deputy Prime Minister, or deputy chief executive as the case may be.

So where did that place Mandelson in UK plc's managerial structure? Nick Robinson, political correspondent of the BBC, asked the question. Mandelson did not even try restraint. It was straight into the hard stuff. Not the "you prat, you wanker" put-down of the Prime Minister's press secretary, Alastair Campbell, nor the even more industrial language of the Chancellor's media man, Charlie Whelan. That is not Mandelson's style.

It is the cutting edge of hauteur, and the language is interesting enough to give the full reply:

"The only people who are preoccupied with my role really are preoccupied with it because they are preoccupied with themselves. I have never heard such a stream of vainglorious, self-indulgent questions coming from members of the media about how they are allegedly managed by me. I am sorry if you feel you are not doing your job properly such that you have to have me write your scripts and fix your headlines. And all I can say is that I don't really see that sort of performance coming from the rest of the media who seem to me quite capable of getting on with their own work without interference from me. I am sure you will aspire to do better in the future."

This outburst, from the master of the black art of political spin, followed his introduction of himself as a businesslike, professional politician possessed of "humility". Correspondents who were tempted to wonder if this really could be the case had second thoughts. Being on the Mandelson black-list can be a lonely business.

Mandelson then went on to Radio 4's World at One and took on the programme's presenter, Martha Kearney. "The reason why media people like you like talking about news management," he said, "is because you like talking about yourselves and your work and your lives in the media more than talking about the things that interest the bulk of the population. I am talking about schools, and the health service. I am talking about unemployment and poverty in this country. This week we have had day in and day out a preoccupation with yourselves. I think it has become very boring and very tedious. I think you should get back to the subjects that really concern the bulk of the population of this country."

That is what Mandelson said.

And what are the facts? It is true that he stage-managed the irritating Lord Simon business, which led to the minister selling his BP shares last Tuesday.

It is not true that he "leaked" the story of the reprieve for Britannia as a diversion from the story of the Foreign Secretary's adultery, because the Treasury plan (it is no more than that, but it is the preferred option) was known to several Sunday newspapers - including this one - days before the Robin Cook affair broke late on Saturday evening.

It is true that Mandelson got very shirty with me last Saturday for writing that he had not spoken in the Commons for more than a year.

Furthermore, it is true that he, or those authorised by him, invited BBC political journalists to switch their gaze to the story that Chris Patten was being investigated by the Foreign Office because he, Mandelson, would "if asked the right question" stand up the Sunday Times story. It is self-evidently true that Mandelson wrote a stiff letter to the Times on Tuesday denying any involvement in the royal yacht story, a move that irritated some senior members of the Cabinet, after which he went a bit quiet since he himself had become the week's principal political story. The few Labour MPs still around the Commons shook their heads in disbelief. "The whole idea about being a spin-doctor," said one, "is that you are the puppeteer. The audience is not supposed to see the strings. Mandelson has painted the strings Day-glo." Since the public relations man is the medium, not the message, it is a cardinal crime in that business to allow the spinner to become the story. So had a crime been committed when the Times's main headline read: "Mandelson accused of fixing news"? Initially it was regarded as a very good joke, on the same lines as "Doctor heals patient". But the funny side has faded rather, to be replaced by some pensive tooth-sucking.

The Prime Minister was sunning himself poolside at the Paymaster-General's villa in Tuscany, but where was his deputy all last week? John Prescott is an immensely busy man, running a large department, and the ubiquitous "friends" say he is "knackered" after the long haul to power. Certainly the bags under his eyes at Friday's Hundred Days Show looked packed for a long journey. Some at Westminster thought he was simply letting Mandelson take the flak. Others wondered whether the old fixer might not be giving the Minister without Portfolio enough rope to hang himself.

At the back of every ambitious Labour politician's mind is Blair's forthcoming Cabinet reshuffle. It is due in November, though it might come sooner. Some of the weaker brethren - Gavin Strang, the Transport Secretary given to being struck dumb at the despatch box, Frank Dobson, the Health Secretary, and possibly Chris Smith at Culture - are high on the hit-lists of Labour wannabees. There is no doubt that Mandelson, who has a legitimate claim to Cabinet status, is desperate to be the first to cash in his political stakeholding. If he had a seat round the Cabinet table he might be more forgiving of the BBC. And did not Blair say that Labour would have learnt how to win power when it learnt to love Peter Mandelson?

Perhaps it is not so strange that John Prescott shifted uneasily in his seat at the bizarre Millbank extravaganza. (It included a three-minute video of a London cabbie saying that "Blair's going to do the business".) The deputy premier's view is that the Minister without Portfolio is an ordinary man doing an ordinary job "in an extraordinary way". Few would quarrel with that. Of course, Prescott did not see his party colleague's gimlet-eyed gaze as he outlined the government's many achievements. But he was acutely aware of the way that Mandelson cut in ahead of him to answer questions about the economy, about the tough new disciplinary code designed to silence Labour MPs, and about schools.

Although they sat side by side, it was as if they were at different press conferences. Prescott delivered a prepared text in his own inimitable way (there was even the old joke about him doing the rain dance not Riverdance). When Mandelson took the rostrum he spoke for about the same length of time, and he went over much the same ground. It was as if he was saying: "You can believe it now. It's coming from me."

This was an Orwellian moment. Which was the farmer, and which was the pig? Or who is the real Deputy Prime Minister?

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