Not spin doctor, but counsellor

PROFILE; Popularly reviled, Peter Mandelson has talents his leader is keen to harness, says Donald Macintyre

Share
Related Topics
To Ken Livingstone, he is "formidable, even more loathed in the Parliamentary Labour Party than I was". Neil Kinnock once said of him, a touch ungratefully: "He's not half as good as he thinks he is and not half as bad as everyone else thinks he is." And for a pro-Labour Westminster journalist he's "like a pantomime villain. The more people hiss when he comes on stage, the more he loves his part."

If the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election has had one side effect above all others, it has been to propel Peter Benjamin Mandelson into the spotlight once again. So far did he dominate the Labour campaign, with his mixture of whimsy and menace, that it was at times impossible to remember that he was the minder and not the candidate.

But the real significance of the appointment of Mandelson to the by-election job goes beyond the brilliantly successful and heavily criticised campaign that he ran; it marks the most public acknowledgement yet of the trust vested in him by Tony Blair.

It was Blair, rather than Mandelson, who thought the Littleborough and Saddleworth seat was winnable; and it was Blair who was determined that the 42-year-old MP for Hartlepool, grandson of Herbert Morrison, and "anti- Christ" to the old left of the party, should run the campaign.

It is partly that level of trust, of course, which variously exasperates, intimidates and inspires envy in so many of Mandelson's parliamentary colleagues. Which raises the question of how important the "real deputy leader" of the Labour Party, as his denigrators have it, truly is.

He is certainly among the three or four people who speak most with Blair day to day. But that doesn't mean he is at every meeting that matters. Before Prime Minister's Questions, for example, Blair will talk to key members of his private office, a lawyer friend such as Lord Irvine and, according to one intimate, "always to Gordon [Brown], not always to Peter".

What Blair is said to see, above all, in Mandelson - far above the parliamentary party's obsolete obsession with him as a spin doctor - is his intelligence and strategic skills, his hyper-acute antennae, his ability to see a problem a week or a month ahead. Perhaps the best term for Mandelson's role in Blair's life, if it weren't for the Mafia connotations given it by Mario Puzo, would be "counsellor" - a combination of adviser, confidant and discerner both of what is possible and necessary.

He is, as one shadow Cabinet admirer puts it, "exceedingly honest and direct with his colleagues when he disagrees with them, where the rest of us would be more politic". But it would be easy to exaggerate dislike for him among his colleagues - it is most intense among those who don't know him or know how funny and personally loyal he can be. Those who visit Hartlepool attest to his popularity and assiduity in the constituency.

And on Thursday night, at Labour's party in Littleborough after the count, Ian McCartney, a Scot and as mainstream an MP as it is possible to find, made a gushing little speech, saying he hadn't known Mandelson very well before the campaign but he was full of admiration for the leadership he had shown, the way he had galavanised party workers and how, "when his reputation was on the line, he never buckled."

His tempestuous on/off relationship with the deputy leader, John Prescott is, thanks to their double act in running the by-election, in a decidedly "on" phase, presaging close co-operation in the run-up to the general election. And Prescott is not going to let Mandelson take the flak for what was a collective decision to focus the campaign on the Liberal Democrat candidate.

The by-election has also brought the first tentative steps towards another rapprochement: with the shadow chancellor, Gordon Brown. The rupture with Brown during the leadership contest last year was perhaps the most painful for Mandelson; the two had been very close; Mandelson talked up Brown to journalists shortly after John Smith's death, before coming out for Blair.

Ken Livingstone's view is that Mandelson has "core beliefs" but that he is "more interested in power than ideology". But that isn't quite borne out by the facts. Despite the brief youthful period in the Young Communist League, and a gap year working for a Trevor Huddleston project in Tanzania - he has since the late Seventies been steadfast in his politics. He was unequivocally a moderniser throughout the Eighties, but never dallied with the SDP - in contrast to his friend Roger Liddle, who defected, returned and is now co-writing with Mandelson a big book on Labour's future.

Mandelson's life is consumed by politics; but he is not hinterland-free. He swims and works out; he is a trustee of the Whitechapel Art Gallery and a governor of the English National Ballet. He is a pillar of the two blue-chip foreign affairs think-tanks, Ditchley Park and Chatham House. He has a wide circle of friends, many of them made during his time at LWT. But his culture, instincts and political personality are irredeemably Labour.

It has become fashionable to observe that Blair is terrific but Mandelson is the danger; that all the Labour leader needs to ensure a smooth ride between now and the general election is to cast the Luciferian Mandelson into the outer darkness. That isn't going to happen. Blair intends to use him in an essential, though as yet undefined, role in the campaign to return Labour to power. And not surprisingly so. Blair has a deep sense of Mandelson's contribution to keeping Labour afloat in the 1987 election campaign, which he ran as Director of Communications. It is ironic that in the demonology of the left, Mandelson is blamed for the failures of the 1992 campaign. For the whole election he was out of it, in Hartlepool.

After the victory, if there is one, his role will change. There is a fear on the left that Blair will make him a dictatorial chief whip. But Blair is much more likely give him a good ministerial job, probably in the rank immediately below Cabinet. Mandelson is known to be keen on the Foreign Office - possibly as European minister - or the Treasury. But that won't stop Blair consulting him after the election. The party leader is steadfast; not just because he is a close friend, which he is, but because he has a just and unshakeable conviction that the section of the political community which would most rejoice at the eclipse of Mandelson would be the Tories.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5/6 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to work in ...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
A suited man eyes up the moral calibre of a burlesque troupe  

Be they burlesque dancers or arms dealers, a bank has no business judging the morality of its clients

John Walsh
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star