When Mandelson scowls, editors scatter in panic. When Mandelson grins, ministers of the Crown shake with apprehension. If, in some Islingtonian eaterie, he orders fish rather than meat, and cocks a quizzical eyebrow, the subtle depths of his hidden message are picked over across the known political universe, from the working-men's clubs of Hartlepool to the sports bars of Foggy Bottom. And when he dies, it will be bemusedly asked of him, as it was asked of Talleyrand, "what did he mean by that?''
Perhaps I exaggerate - a little. But having been the most feared and talked-of political operator in the business, Mandelson is trying to become "just an ordinary politician". Quite why he seeks this diminution is a mystery, but it is probably a fruitless quest. It is a little too much like Lucretia Borgia giving up the palace and opening a pasta joint.
Now he and his old friend Roger Liddle have published a book, The Blair Revolution, which could, if the world was fair, change that reputation. After yesterday, there can be no more glib talk of Mandelson's hidden agenda; there are 261 pages of open, overt agenda. It is a decent, respectable and benign agenda, which will bring much disappointment to conspiracy theorists everywhere.
Mandelson and Liddle always had a dilemma in writing this book. Given how very close Mandelson is to Tony Blair, they could either produce a relatively bland account of current Labour thinking; or they could strike out boldly and risk embarrassing the party leader. Every bold stroke would be thought Blair's secret agenda.
In the event they have gone for caution. I'm told that the Guardian's editor, contemplating the manuscript for serialisation, ruefully suggested that it had been "Campbellised'' - that is, eviscerated by Mr Blair's press secretary. Well, if so, it was the sensible course of action; politics before profits.
So what agenda is this? What does the book bring to our understanding of new Labour? Let us start with its many merits. It is clear, authoritative, self-confident and suffused with a can-do mentality. On their final page, the authors quote Nye Bevan to remind us that "free men can use free institutions to solve the social and economic problems of the day'' and assert that "politics can make a difference".
In that, there is the old self-assurance of the social democratic tradition. Paternalist in some respects, it was nevertheless energetic and optimistic about government's ability to change lives for the better. This optimism has been hugely unfashionable, partly because of the rising power of global markets. Now, perhaps, it is back.
Mandelson and Liddle are themselves perfect examples of the social democrat government-in-exile - men formed and driven by a belief in their right to govern Britain. They were young members of that post-war centrist ruling class which was suddenly and brutally deprived of its birthright by the radical revolt of Thatcherism.
Between them, the Thatcher revolution and the Bennite Labour uprising buried social democracy for nearly two decades. Decent, thoughtful, middle- of-the-road reformists were no longer wanted in Whitehall or, for a while, in the Labour Party. Yet neither of these two ever seemed daunted by this; their self-assurance always seemed impermeable.
Mandelson joined the Kinnock counter-revolution and the rest is history. Liddle pursued a more picaresque path through the wilderness, passing to the SDP, then the Liberal Democrats (whom he rather disdained) and then back to Labour again. I think of him standing crossly at the back of various conference halls, expostulating on the failures of grandees on the podium. Like Mandelson, he spent his exile permanently fascinated by the detail of politics, the psephology, the constituency-by-constituency analysis, the committee-fixing.
Now, finally, the Restoration beckons. Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party. But if that party is, as Mandelson and Liddle assert, essentially social-democratic, what is left of its political programme after globalisation, the big social and cultural changes of the past 20 years and the changes of the Thatcher-Major administrations?
In a pamphlet for the think-tank Demos, pronouncing social democracy dead, the philosopher John Gray declared, "The task of the age is that of reconciling the human need for security with the permanent revolution of the market.'' But as social democrats, Mandelson and Liddle say something very similar: "The fundamental question for Britain today is whether we can compete successfully in the new global market-place and still live in a decent society.'' Given that, they should have told us more about the impact globalisation has had on governments' ability to manage demand, pursue different tax strategies, finance a generous welfare state, and so on. What are the limits of the possible? Their answer, in essence, is that government can still direct, plan and regulate and these are huge powers which are capable of achieving a fairer and better Britain.
The book's tone reminds one constantly that Mandelson's family was Labour aristocracy and that Liddle worked for the Callaghan government; though written in opposition, it has the true Whitehall perspective. This can be irritating. There are excellent passages on the need for internal Whitehall reform but political outsiders are biffed, ever so politely, for their naive enthusiasms. Certain political reforms are defended as right in themselves, but the political reformers who fought them on to the agenda get a somewhat de haut en bas dismissal. Environmentalism is barely discussed. There is a touch of the world-weary Permanent Secretary about some of the prose; given that Labour is in opposition, this may be realistic but feels a little premature.
Mandelson-Liddle's decision not embarrass Mr Blair means that much of the text is an eloquent exposition of familiar Labour positions and the most difficult residual questions about party policy are avoided. The position of Scottish MPs at Westminster after Home Rule is left hanging. Ditto the longer-term future of the Lords.
When we come to the voting system the authors tell us that "the case for wholesale reform is now weak'' because Labour is more popular. If there must be reform, they conclude, it should be the least-radical kind. On income tax, they affirm support for a "progressive'' system, with the lower-paid contributing less; but they don't spell out what that means for higher taxpayers. And so on.
These are quibbles, however, which are mainly the result of the authors' self-denying ordinance. Authorial restraint for the sake of the party is a hard thing and it gives us a clue to the real Peter Mandelson. He is not a daring author or an original thinker, any more than he is really a Machiavelli. He is a loyalist and a serious politician seriously interested in power. What you see, and read, is what you get. It's just that - sorry, Peter - none of us will ever quite believe it.Reuse content