Mr Mandelson is more than a star in a soap opera

'Suspicion of Mandelson among Brown's allies meets eurosceptic yearning for a Cabinet scalp'
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The Independent Online

It's time, finally, to get real. After three days of The Book They're All Talking About, what have we really got? A decent story - which Labour should have stood up earlier than it did - on the fact that in opposition the leader's office did indeed benefit from Geoffrey Robinson's munificence. Some interesting nuggets. And, to the delight of Labour's opponents, a sustained attack over two days on Peter Mandelson - hardly revelatory, but ferocious enough for even those of the Tory "bastards" against - say - Ken Clarke to look timid by comparison.

It's time, finally, to get real. After three days of The Book They're All Talking About, what have we really got? A decent story - which Labour should have stood up earlier than it did - on the fact that in opposition the leader's office did indeed benefit from Geoffrey Robinson's munificence. Some interesting nuggets. And, to the delight of Labour's opponents, a sustained attack over two days on Peter Mandelson - hardly revelatory, but ferocious enough for even those of the Tory "bastards" against - say - Ken Clarke to look timid by comparison.

For all this, bizarrely, it's Mr Mandelson who largely gets the blame. With honourable exceptions, tabloid commentators queue up to say that this reveals what they always knew, that where there is Mandelson there is trouble, and that he must be exclusively responsible for all the Government's divisions. Never mind that it's hard to imagine a more divisive act for a Labour MP than using the front page of the Daily Mail to attack a senior Labour minister perhaps less than six months before a general election. Even when qualified by syrupy assurances by the MP that he does not actually want the minister executed.

Which shows, among other things, a collective loss of proportion for which we are all, perhaps, a little to blame. Imagine an intelligent alien arriving in Britain in the midst of this saturation coverage. What, he might ask, does this earthling Mandelson actually do for a living? Interior design? Deal in property? Scrounge dinners in grand hotels? Er, no, we would have to say, a little embarrassed. He's in Northern Ireland trying to prevent a fragile peace collapsing over the next two weeks. You know that business in the Middle East? Well, given the speed with which a peace deal turned to war there, we're just a tiny bit nervous that the same could happen here. Isn't that, our alien might ask, more important than all this soap opera? Well yes, I suppose so, we'd say. But it isn't anything like such fun.

It's true, of course, that there is more to the Robinson serialisation than mere soap opera. For some time the conservative Daily Mail, has been peculiarly, if lucratively, the vehicle of choice for those who accuse the Government of forsaking the true path of Labour virtue. However, in the Geoffrey Robinson memoirs it has hit a jackpot; for the extracts from his book do something more. They play to an agenda as appealing to The Sun as it is to the Mail. For here the deep, six-year history of emotion among allies of Gordon Brown, (such as Robinson), ranging from suspicion to hatred of Mr Mandelson, meets the fierce yearning of the Eurosceptic press for a scalp.

None of these papers, with the shakily recent and fair-weather exception of The Sun, are friends of Labour. From Labour's point of view, indeed, nothing would be healthier than to secure victory without their help. But unless and until that happy day occurs, their choice of demon figures remains influential.

And, of course, there is a neat symmetry here. For these papers, the more enigmatic is Mr Brown's true attitude to British membership of the single currency, the more he commends himself to them. This isn't at all to say that Mr Brown, an outstanding Chancellor, doesn't deserve the praise regularly lavished on him in - say - The Sun. It isn't to deny that the sickly start of the euro goes a long way to vindicating his insistence on effectively ruling out, in October 1997, British entry in the current parliament. But it is to suggest that The Sun's tendency in recent times to commend Mr Brown in warmer terms than Mr Blair - while depicting Mr Mandelson as the arch-villain - might just have something to do with the paper's attitude to Europe.

Those in the Labour Party tempted by all this into imagining that the excision of Mr Mandelson from Labour's inner counsels would somehow ease the media pressures, should reflect that even the supposedly friendly Sun might then turn more of the heat on Mr Blair (not to mention Stephen Byers and Robin Cook) who, while every bit as signed up to the October 1997 policy as Mr Brown, remain more obviously unequivocal on the virtues of joining provided that the economics are right.

So it matters. But it's the soap opera aspect which means, for example, that when, on Monday morning, Mr Mandelson met Mr Blair to discuss what is generally agreed to be the worst crisis for the Good Friday Agreement since it was signed in 1998, we were only interested in whether the two men had discussed Mr Robinson's memoirs. In a sobering conversation yesterday, a senior British official in Belfast told me, self-deprecatingly, that he knew his fellow Ulstermen could be parochial. But he had never in all his professional life had a greater sense than this week of how the Westminster village was divorced from the real world.

To this official and his colleagues, the noises off are a baffling and unwelcome distraction. The facts are plain. With no bankable signs so far that the IRA is truly preparing to decommission arms, Mr Trimble is already under pressure, which will reach a climax at an Ulster Unionist Council meeting on 28 October, to withdraw from the executive or face a possibly successful hard-line challenge which could scupper hopes of recovering a political settlement.

Against this radioactive background, Mr Mandelson is obliged to steer through the Lords next week a bill ushering in the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which because of clauses which modify Chris Patten's report on the RUC, all too understandably anger nationalists, but which, if he abandons them, may make Mr Trimble's position more perilous still. In doing so he needs to convince nationalists who believe that Mr Trimble's departure doesn't matter that it does, and Unionists that they will be throwing away their political influence if they abandon the executive.

But this isn't, apparently, interesting - though it will no doubt become so if the clouds darken as 28 October draws nearer. Nor is the argument that, while Mr Mandelson has made mistakes, he has so far proved an adept Northern Ireland Secretary, succeeding in - twice - launching the new executive, which this week delivered its first budget and thus showed that devolved politics can mean something real.

But whether you accept that argument or not, it isn't always easy to understand why Mr Mandelson's job isn't, in media terms, as interesting as the 1996 home loan for which he paid by resigning at the end of 1998. Particularly as a third relaunch of the Northern Ireland executive may not, in the foreseeable future, be possible, and the crisis he has to handle is, therefore, profound.

I am not, repeat not, suggesting that, as Lech Walesa once chillingly put it, journalists have a "patriotic duty" to be permanently high-minded in their coverage of politics. But I am suggesting that sometimes a sense of proportion is appropriate, and that politicians have jobs as well as starring roles in the Westminster soap opera. Mr Mandelson should not allow himself to be distracted by the noises off from the business in hand. But nor, perhaps, now we have had our fun, should we.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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