Leader: A new, dignified, job for Peter Mandelson

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The Independent Online
These are the dog days of August. Parliamentarians have departed to far-off olive groves. News flows as sluggishly as a summer Tuscan brook. Editors and executives lie awake at night worrying about about where the next front page is going to come from. But this year the gods have provided munificently: ``Dodi'' Fayed and Whatshername for the tabloids; and for us and our relatives, Peter Mandelson, shopminder-in-chief, FRCP of the spin-doctoring trade and a source very, very close to the Prime Minister. In the past few days Mr Mandelson has provided stories thick and fast: now, rather less comfortably, he is the story. The attempt yesterday by the nominal Deputy Prime Minister to assert himself only ensures more headlines.

Let us say straightaway that Mr Mandelson is right to complain about media self-obsessiveness. There are two essentials in avoiding "spin" or "manipulation" - acute, brave journalism, plus pluralism in media ownership; the rest is self-regarding waffle. Mr Mandelson had some right on his side, too, in his run-in at Broadcasting House. When a one o'clock radio programme is desperately anxious to fill its allotted time and even more desperate to distinguish itself from the radio programmes that precede and succeed it, it can lose its capacity to make reliable judgements about significance. Mr Mandelson could, it's true, take lessons from John Prescott about how to do live radio but his impatience was understandable - during its 100 days Labour has inaugurated substantive changes in policy which deserve the closest attention.

For example, while insults were being exchanged in a broadcasting studio in London, Frank Field, the social security minister, was out in deepest England, apparently making policy on the hoof, on a subject - work and welfare - that will be Labour's greatest opportunity and challenge.

Oddly enough Mr Mandelson's charge that his personality and position are irrelevant would be a lot more plausible if he were merely what he says he is - a spokesperson for the Government. He is much more than that and always has been. This minister of information is also author of a book charting his party's future course. Peter Mandelson's opus, The Blair Revolution, co-written with Roger Liddle, is more than a pot-boiler, too. It is a considered statement of ideology and party strategy and, when Mr Mandelson delivers himself of his Fabian thoughts later this week, his words will be well worth listening to for their neo-revisionist content.

It so happens that we share much of Mr Mandelson's analysis, especially his enthusiastic espousal of constitutional change. But he has to understand that is part of the reason why the media buzzes round him like moths round a flame. This man is Tony Blair's Suslov; he is clever and ambitious; his deceptively casual talk about standing for the National Executive Committee, let alone a thinly coded application for a cabinet minister's position, speaks about a man who feels he has high potential to fill. The real charge against the personality interviewers he contemns is that they missed the story, which is why this summer this arch-strategist seems to be treading water.

In Opposition and during the election campaign, it suited Labour and Peter Mandelson to exaggerate the potency of the Millbank machine and to darken his prince-of-darkness persona. The climate of Tory fear helped Labour win. But now? It is beginning to look as if Labour is trapped here. The Mandelson story feels as if it will not, cannot, go away. Journalists adore it, for obvious reasons. The Tories like it. For them, Mandelson- as-autocratic-fixer has been a gift when they have had very little else to go on. And all the disgruntled Old Labourites like it, too: it gives them an easy scapegoat

So how do Tony Blair, and Peter Mandelson himself, get out of this one? Blaming the media will not wash: Mr Mandelson made his political fortune with the media constituted as they are and he is going to have to live with it. He knows that and is a very shrewd operator. This may explain why he has been publicly angling for a promotion to Cabinet which must, on the face of it, lessen his power. The time is fast coming for that ``proper job'' Mr Blair denied him on 2 May.

A Labour Cabinet would benefit from Mr Mandelson's membership. But when he is moved into it, he must have a serious task. The biggest cabinet jobs - the Treasury, the Foreign Office and John Prescott's super-ministry - are unlikely to be vacant for a very long time. Other obvious jobs, including Culture, Defence or a specific cabinet role on Europe, would be seen by now as a come-down for a man who must, in his heart of hearts, aspire to succeed Mr Blair one day as party leader and Prime Minister. Mr Mandelson seems to want - and certainly could deserve - political success in his own right. He knows that the Rasputins of this world never become Tsar. And the minute one casts around for big political roles that he could fill, one solution becomes obvious.

Despite the May landslide, the political project set out in The Blair Revolution is far from accomplished. The party requires further drastic surgery and the paint is barely dry on its first batch of constitutional policies. From which position is he going to be best able to accomplish more - as a minister without portfolio, or as a secretary of state making a name on some of the great political reform questions which have hitherto seemed worryingly disjointed? Say there is a November reshuffle. The Chancellorship of the Duchy of Lancaster might well fall vacant - how easy it would be to upgrade the job to cabinet rank while giving it real content, combining responsibility for constitutional change with reformation of the machinery of state. To our ears, Secretary of State for Political Reform sounds rather better - and more dignified - than Minister of Spin.