I have known Peter Mandelson for a long time, and one year I even managed to end up on holiday with him. I was travelling alone in Spain and so was he, so we agreed that we would meet up there. He was a charming and civilised man to be with, and we had a good time. Later, when he was trying to get his current parliamentary seat in Hartlepool, he stayed with me in Redcar, my constituency, just across the Tees. This was a less congenial setting for him. I only had a two-up, two-down terrace house in the back streets. Peter, I remember, never looked comfortable at breakfast time, lying on the sofa bed in the sitting room and speaking on his mobile phone. He only stayed once, being very aware of his creature comforts and his status.
Peter will enjoy his new job. The salary, perks and status will feed his ego, and the power will also help. But will he be able to wean himself off British domestic politics, in particular life in No 10? When Peter was Northern Ireland Secretary, a very demanding job and a place that absorbs all your energies, I was alarmed to see how often he was to be seen in No 10. Already he has said he will be spending "the bulk of the week" in Brussels. He has a craving to be at the centre of things, but will he find Brussels such a centre?
I hope he does, because with only one commissioner, in future that person is going to have to work doubly hard at making the EU work at this particularly challenging time of enlargement, and in representing Britain's interests. One aspect of the man worries me, though. As I say, he can be very charming, and if he wants something from you, he can make you feel that you are the most important person in the world, that he is your best friend. But if you have offended him, or are simply of no use to him at that moment, he can be rude and dismissive. Simply, he is disliked and not trusted by his colleagues, as is evident from the number of members of the Cabinet who are appalled at the idea of him returning to the Cabinet.
Trust will be a key element in our dealings with other EU countries. There are already deep divisions between Britain and many countries in Europe, not only because of Tony Blair's slavish devotion to the United States over and above Europe with regard to Iraq, but also our posturing over the EU constitution and our reluctance to join the euro. It will be extraordinarily difficult to manage these issues, and will Peter help? If his fellow commissioners come to feel about him the way his former Cabinet colleagues do, what will this do to help our reputation and position in the EU? Feelings of a duplicitous Britain will increase. We will not be trusted. This is the enormous risk in his appointment.
Peter is very effective at political and media manipulation - ask any political journalist - but left to his own devices he can be foolish and show a lack of judgement. His desire to control events, whatever those events are, can lead to trouble. His second sacking from the Cabinet illustrates this. Although he was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing about the Hindujas' passports, what is significant is the Prime Minister's decision to sack him. Tony simply did not believe him when he mounted his defence. From his experience of the man, he could believe that Peter had overplayed his hand, and fundamentally lacked judgement. He did not trust him. It is hard to square this with his protestation yesterday that he is the best man for the job.
So why appoint him now? Anyone else who had been forced to resign from the Cabinet twice would never have come back. He may have remained a friend of the Prime Minister and his family. He may have remained a confidant. But to put him back in the mainstream of political life would have been impossible. When I first read reports of his comeback as an EU commissioner, I thought that it was just Peter up to his old tricks. Just floating a story to boost his ego and to see if any one took it seriously (and I didn't believe they would).
But then, lo and behold, he gets the job. In typical Peter fashion, we soon see stories in the press that Tony really wanted to bring him back into the Cabinet, but had to settle on the European Commission. Here we have Peter as victim, and it softens the blow for the rest of the world when they sigh in relief that at least he did not get back into the Cabinet. This is pure Peter manipulation.
But why did Tony do it? Governing Britain well is surely more important than his feelings for one man, however good a friend he is, and however much he feels guilty over the second Mandelson resignation. Is this the way to win an election? Although outside the world of Westminster Peter is less well-known and his reputation may not be as sullied as it is in professional political circles, if people remember him at all - apart from for the Dome - it will be for his mortgage arrangements rather than his brilliant media manipulation, and for being a close friend of the Prime Minister.
Cronyism, the way he prefers to have his friends about him rather than his elected colleagues, was one of the first accusations made against Tony. He will favour those he likes and knows well above those who are most competent for the job. So why perpetuate this reputation in such an obvious and risky way? It is partly because Tony likes to prove that he can do what he likes, however unpopular that decision is. And he particularly likes doing this when it means offending his own party and supporters. He takes a perverse delight in upsetting the Labour Party - and this appointment will upset many there.
But he also risks adding a destabilising element to the whole European issue. Yes, the Tories have deep problems with Europe, but New Labour is also split. We know that Tony still harbours a wish to take Britain into the euro. We know he has committed himself to the risky enterprise of winning the referendum on the constitution. But certainly on the first of these he is at loggerheads with his Chancellor, Gordon Brown. And since Peter chose Tony over Gordon when the Labour leadership became available in 1994, Peter and Gordon have not got on. Peter, a strong pro-European, is likely to want to promote Europe. But will this always be done in a way that is most advantageous to the Government? I fear not. Left to his own devices, Peter will make mischief. He has riled Gordon in the past with his statements to the press. Can he be trusted not to embarrass the Chancellor when he is asked about the euro?
When Peter lost his Cabinet position for the second time, I felt sorry for him. I knew how important being in government was for him. He had been in the shadows for so long, first under Neil Kinnock and then working for Tony. But he had now lost his opportunity for a second time to share the limelight. Knowing his love of status and luxury I took him to the Savoy for breakfast (a financially reckless thing to do, I discovered). What upset me, though, was that the man I found on that occasion was not the civilised charmer I had known in the past. He was arrogant, vain and self-obsessed. Not one word did he utter that did not concern himself. I hope he can see more broadly in his new job.
The writer was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland from 1997-99Reuse content