The Sketch: Mandelson leaves us frozen in frustration

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The Independent Online

Are they chairladies, in the Lords? It sounds a little menial for their position. I collared chairlady Cohen outside the European Sub-Committee A and asked, "Did you get anything out of that?"

She gave me quite a sharp look and said, "Oh yes!" in a vigorous, well-bred, 1950s, Girton College sort of way.

"What? I asked. It sounded like, "Wot?" There was a pause. "I'm mid-committee," she said and went back in through the public entrance.

You have to work to get anything out of Lord Mandelson. The Lords approached the project in the manner of that first ever political interview on the BBC in the early 1950s when the interviewer said to Anthony Eden, I think: "You are famous for your experience in foreign affairs but some people don't realise you are equally knowledgeable about domestic matters" (and here came the first question) "Which would you like to talk about first?"

Lord Peter might have handled this level of interrogation with a little more aplomb. Baroness Cohen kicked off with her Eden Intro: "Some of us felt we never quite understood why, at the last minute, the Doha round failed. Anything you are able to tell us would be welcome."

He took the lady at her word. But she was just being polite. The round had not failed, he began; though the talks did not end in success. The ministerial meeting was properly called in July despite the risks. There were successes in tariffs and subsidies and 70 per cent of this and 80 per cent of that and trade distortions of the other.

After 10 minutes of this, the sort of material that the committee could have read in three paragraphs of a Press Association report in 15 seconds ... they were still staring politely at the new Lord's frozen physiognomy. I've got scrawled angrily "Oh Come on!!!!"

As the EU's chief negotiator he can't say anything interesting about the negotiations without killing them. But didn't the committee know that?

He used to have a wonderful way with journalists, of lowering his voice to give an individual a small but perfectly formed story. That it had already appeared in the newspaper didn't seem to diminish the confidential nature of the exchange. That was a talent in itself.

But they were, these experienced, dignified peers, falling for the same thing. Or if they weren't deceived, they had no manner to be able to make the ex-Trade Commissioner say anything that they hadn't already heard at a dinner party.

At the beginning of the session, he'd walked past the public entrance, as if assuming the scrum of sketchwriters must be lying in wait for someone else. "I can't think why...?" he murmured, surveying us. He was right, as ever. What a perfectly adapted mutant he is, for the new world order.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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