After several years in abeyance for want of the quarry, one of Middle England's traditional country sports has returned with a vengeance. The new Peter Mandelson hunting season is now under way, and what a stirring sight it is to see the old hue and cry resume with such passion.
Over at the Daily Mail, the Old Rothermere mounted up and set off in pursuit amid much whooping, hollering and intemperate adjectives. There was Max Hastings, breathing hard, as he chased after Mandelson with simile after simile. He compared him to Rasputin, said he was an "integrity-free zone" and nothing but "a pilot fish of serpentine skill". He was soon overtaken by Richard Littlejohn, who tally-hoed with such phrases as "odious, discredited creep", "the most malignant tumour on Britain's body politic", "pure sewage", "reptilian recidivist", and "pernicious popinjay".
Several other Mandelson hunts took to the field, notably, the Desmond ("Smug Mandy is sworn in ... as the Lord of Darkness" – Daily Express), although the Barclay ("Questions over Mandelson and his Moscow dinners with Russia's richest man" – Daily Telegraph) had a rather muted outing. Nevertheless, at the end of some keen sport, masters of the hunt were able to declare that Mandelson, in the week he returned to the Cabinet and took his seat in the Lords, had been well and truly savaged.
Just what is it about Peter Mandelson that attracts these attacks? Some have suggested it is homophobia, a hate that these days supposedly dares not speak its name, but which thrives still among journalism's replica-shirt wearers. The Sun greeted his return with a story headlined "I'm behind you", and the Mail's Littlejohn, a noted shooter of fish in a barrel, could not resist describing Mandelson as "Backstairs Billy" and "Milly Molly Mandy", before finally adding: "I'd rather have the neighbourhood nonce round for a Gary Glitter-themed children's birthday party." Even allowing for repeated quaffings from the stirrup cup, this was poison that made one wonder what personal psychological complexities might make a writer want to throw such vitriol in the face of a gay politician.
But the pursuit of Peter Mandelson goes far deeper than personal hang-ups. Certainly there are those in the hunts who see him as a pest to be eradicated from the countryside. And, in this, Mandelson himself has been complicit, making errors of judgement that have twice required his resignation. First there were his convoluted borrowings and mortgage arrangements, the details of which had to be dragged from him as if they were state secrets. Secondly, there were his labours on behalf of Mr Hinduja's passport application. But, whatever his past errors, they have not concerned his performance as a minister, a role in which, especially at the Northern Ireland Office, he was appreciated – held in affection even – by his civil servants.
By contrast, the red-faced pursuers of Mandelson (and their readers, the hunt followers) find something in the very sight, or thought, of him that provokes a bile directed at no other British figure, save perhaps for Cherie Blair. This month, their blood pressure raised to dangerous levels by, first, Mandelson's return from Europe, and, then, the sight of him in scarlet robes and ermine all set for the Lords, the followers unleashed on the message boards of the Old Rothermere renewed baying for blood. "Mandy looks like the child-catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" – Karen, expat; "Mandelson makes my flesh creep" – Zordana, Bucks; and "Mandelson is lower than a snake's belly" – James, Liverpool.
Odd, this obsession, really, because Mandelson is one of the more transparent people in politics. When he is trying to brow-beat a journalist (as some of us know) it's obvious what he is up to, and, once rebuffed, he will happily revert to a rather bantering sort of exchange. When in charm mode, as he was for his maiden speech in the Lords, the words are so oleaginous they almost take on an extra, lyrical dimension. And when he is being indiscreet, he can sound like the town-gossip telephonist in a Frank Capra movie – not so much bitchy as simply bursting to tell you what he has just overheard.
Transparent, too, in his most fatal flaw (which he shares with Cherie): that kid-at-the-pie-shop-window fascination with wealth and the super-rich. Money and its trappings have stuck to him in a way that implies this is more than someone who is merely lucky at raffles: the loan from Geoffrey Robinson, the favour for the Hindujas, the silly, overblown title he's chosen (Lord Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool), and the hob-nobbing with the likes of the Russian businessman Oleg Deripaska. His defence – that he only stayed on the oligarch's yacht because his first host, Nat Rothschild, had run out of room at his Mediterranean spread – was less an excuse and more like the resumé of someone auditioning for a walk-on part in a modern Brideshead Revisited.
The hunters will not be happy until they see Mandelson hunted down and his entrails spilled. But, in their lust for the quarry, what they fail to see is that, despite his flaws, maybe Mandelson keeps on living to fight another day because he has talents and uses they can only dream of.