Dominic Lawson: Lord Mandelson makes the case for Divine Right

New Labour has amply demonstrated its unfitness for office over a dozen years
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The Independent Online

Where would Peter Mandelson – excuse me, Baron Mandelson of Foy in the County of Herefordshire and of Hartlepool in the County of Durham – give his big pre-election campaign interview? Why, of course, for Tatler, the magazine whose raison d'être is to keep us fully informed about the social activities of the aristocracy.

All the same, it is beyond satire that Mandelson tells Tatler's readers that "David Cameron is an attractive and amusing cove". An amusing cove? I suspect that even Cameron in his Bullingdon Club years would have regarded the use of such a term as anachronistic as the wearing of spats. It is now seen only in the novels of PG Wodehouse; but even there, emerging from the mouth of that amiable wastrel Bertie Wooster, it was part of a parody of a long-lost upper-class life.

Anyway, Mandelson went on to say that while Cameron was "an attractive and amusing cove" there was an overwhelming reason why even the readers of Tatler should consider not voting for the Conservatives: "It takes two years to understand the system, two years to change the system and two years to start delivering, by which time you're out." The interviewer, Alain de Botton, goes on to paraphrase the First Secretary of State's full argument thus: "In other words, if the Conservatives were to be elected, the Government would be in the hands of people who would not be so much bad or unprincipled as inexperienced and unknowledgeable."

Isn't this a fabulously self-serving argument for perpetual rule by one party, in this case, Mandelson's beloved New Labour? It is true that Mr Brown has accumulated almost two years of experience as Prime Minister, and over a decade as Chancellor of the Exchequer, while David Cameron... hasn't. Yet suppose we were to take Mandelson's advice, and reject the Tories simply because their top team lacks experience of running a Government: his argument would be all the more insistent in another four or five years' time, at the election after this one.

By then there would be no Ken Clarke on the Tory team – a man whose experience of the business of Government, as it happens, dates from 1972, when Peter Mandelson was still a schoolboy and Gordon Brown an undergraduate. Doubtless William Hague, who had been in John Major's Cabinet, would have left front-line politics to become a full-time author; and perhaps even David Cameron, who had some experience of Government as special adviser to Michael Howard at the Home Office and Norman Lamont at the Treasury, would have given up in despair and disappointment. By then, in 2015, Lord Mandelson – who at this stage would be an Earl, if not a Duke – would point (from the distance of the House of Lords) to the Tory front bench and ask: how could such a party, with no collective experience whatsoever of Government, be entrusted with such a challenging task, while we, New Labour, have had eighteen years of being tested at the highest level?

That was, in fact, exactly the argument which for some people weighed heaviest against voting for New Labour back in 1997. They were fed up with the Tories, after 18 years of uninterrupted power, but nervous about entrusting the ship of state to an unprecedentedly inexperienced Labour team. As it turned out, while the Conservatives deserved to lose that election, and the departure of their exhausted and demoralised ministers was greeted with joy in the corridors of Whitehall, the permanent civil service soon realised that Tony Blair had very little idea of how to govern: worse, he and his Boswell, Alastair Campbell, had no appetite for the slow, detailed, grind of public administration, and continued as a purely party political organisation, overwhelmingly dedicated to the destruction of the Tories – and to securing favourable headlines on the next day's front pages.

As one senior civil servant put it to me recently – very much more in sorrow than in anger: "New Labour's talk about transforming public services were promises not just which they had no idea how to achieve, but they knew they had no idea of how to do it... They had targets which they must have known were undeliverable. In fact, there was a deep underlying cynicism. This was all to do with politics rather than government." Then he sighed: "I do long for serious cabinet government again."

Perhaps Mandelson was partially acknowledging this criticism with his remark that "It takes two years to understand the system"; but the truth is that New Labour, even after 13 years in office, is still much more obsessed with the next day's newspaper headlines, than what the state of the country will be in five years' time.

Just to pick one relatively recent example out of the air: the flagship policy in the Queen's Speech of December 2008 (words by Gordon Brown) was a "Homeowner Mortgage Support Scheme". It was proclaimed that this was a "£1bn package" to help those "struggling" with mortgages of up to £400,000. Within a day it became clear that so many conditions were attached that only a tiny proportion of the many millions of people with mortgages under £400,000 would be eligible. A year later the Department of Communities and Local Government released the number of those who had benefited in the first 12 months of Mr Brown's much-trumpeted scheme. There were 15 of them. Not 15 million; not 15,000. Fifteen. In time-honoured New Labour fashion this announcement was put out on the same day as Alistair Darling released his Pre-Budget Report: a good day, presumably, to bury bad news.

It can't be guaranteed that a Cameron-led administration will mark a return to what that senior civil servant described, almost with tears of longing in his eyes, as "serious cabinet government". Far from it: there are enough signs that David Cameron has the same liking as Blair for ruling via a small coterie of friends, and leaving most members of his shadow Cabinet out of the loop. He is, exactly like Peter Mandelson, someone whose only experience of professional life, outside politics, was in the media; and, like Brown and Blair up to 1997, he has concentrated obsessively on eliminating the negative perceptions the public have of the party he leads, rather than the mechanics of delivering good government.

Perhaps that is inevitable in opposition, especially when a political party is trying to recover from a position of electoral near-oblivion; and, in any case, such a party needs to go through the vulgar process of winning a general election before it even has the chance to prove its credentials as a reliable and responsible government. To that extent, David Cameron's Conservatives deserve the benefit of the (considerable) doubt.

Not so, Lord Mandelson's New Labour. He told the man from Tatler that the problem for a new administration is that it only had six years to prove itself: "By which time you're out." But New Labour has had more than twice that long to prove itself – and in that expanse of time it has amply demonstrated its unfitness for office.

As it happens, Peter Mandelson is intellectually better equipped for ministerial office than either Tony Blair was, or Gordon Brown is. Coming from a political family, he also has what amounts to a genetically acquired feel for power and how to use it. So perhaps that is why he was so very complimentary ("polished, intelligent, determined") about David Cameron in his Tatler interview: it was a job application.