OUR SERIES ON THE PEOPLE JOCKEYING FOR INFLUENCE IN THE LATE NINETIES

THE NEW ESTABLISHMENT Day nine Mandelson's people He may be loathed in the Commons, but his is the new face of politics. By Peter Popham
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The Independent Online
Robert Harris, the political writer, says of Peter Mandelson (right), "He is sparky, witty, charming - good company. Our children adore him: he's quite mischievous and anarchic, and they respond very well to him. He's like a favourite uncle."

Derek Draper, formerly Mandelson's researcher, says, "He is an exciting person to be with, because of his clarity and precision of thinking and his mixture of charm and mischievousness. The thing he deserves credit for is the incredible warmth and loyalty he shows his friends."

So, Peter Mandelson has friends. The general verdict, when a piece on this subject was proposed, was that it would be an article of record brevity, rivalling the Bumper Book of German Jokes. Even Robert Harris responded in this way, before turning on the compliments.

It would certainly be a more straightforward task to compile a list of Mandelson's enemies: just write out the names of the Parliamentary Labour Party, omitting his own ("I am the nicest person I know," he said in 1990) and Tony Blair's. As director of communications, and later Member for Hartlepool and Blair's closest and most trusted adviser (they meet every morning), he has succeeded in seriously antagonising scores of other MPs.

In his book Faces of Labour, Andy McSmith tells how in February 1990 Neil Kinnock's impatience with Mandelson's scheming to get a Labour seat boiled over at the party's headquarters in Walworth Road. "Kinnock began loudly berating him ... Party staff three storeys up could hear what the leader was saying and were taking gleeful pleasure in watching the legendary director of communications grappling with a severe communication problem."

That "gleeful" says a lot. The mood abated somewhat after he became the Member for Hartlepool in 1992 and seemed for a while to have given up his spin-doctoring ways. But, in May 1994, on the death of John Smith he hurled himself into the campaign to get Tony Blair elected leader and again rapidly became, according to McSmith, "quite the most unpopular figure in the Parliamentary Labour Party."

The degree and nature of Peter Mandelson's prominence says a lot both about the present-day Labour Party and present-day British politics. Mandelson was the drastic remedy the party came up with to tackle the causes of 1983's crashing defeat. Sweeping through its stagnant press office like an elegant tornado, he quickly put the fear of God into its Conservative counterparts. "Mention of Mandelson appears to cast a respectful terror in the hearts of Tory strategists," one commentator observed, "much as the name Rommel gained a mythical status among Allied generals."

If he had left it at that, the party might have taken him to its bosom. But in 1987 it became clear that he planned to get as closely involved in the making of policy as he had been in its presentation; and that he was going to deploy his formidable presentational skills and his unrivalled, 24-hour-a-day dedication to getting his way.

For a man with no base in the party, it was a bold gamble. His influence owed everything to his intimacy with the leadership and with the media, and to the electricity - in terms of positive news coverage - which this enabled him to generate. But the gamble has paid off handsomely. Mandelson's power base may be fragile, and wholly dependent on Tony Blair not falling under a bus, but it is immense.

Of course he is not as isolated as his parliamentary enemies would like him to appear. His select circle of friends constitutes a microcosm of a particular sort of elite. He has a good relationship with Alistair Campbell, Blair's press officer. His closest friend is probably Phillip Gould, the man he coaxed away from a brilliant career in advertising to overhaul Labour's image. Gould's wife is Gail Rebuck, managing director of the publisher HarperCollins who became a millionaire when given golden handcuffs by the company.

Other close friends and allies include John Birt, director general of the BBC; Christopher Bland, the BBC's chairman; and Roger Liddle, a founder member of the SDP and co-author of Mandelson's book The Blair Revolution. Another intimate chum is Peter Ashby, his former flatmate, who is prominent as a lobbyist for the cause of full employment.

Most of Mandelson's political work has been backstage, but he himself is now quite famous: last week he was photographed at the Ministry of Sound disco's fifth birthday party, and the Evening Standard ran the picture next to Mick Jagger's, and just as large. Conclusion: politics today has become almost exclusively a love affair between politicians and the media.

Tomorrow: the final instalment

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