The master of spin goes in to bat

Interview: Peter Mandelson defends himself, in conversation with Donald Macintyre, against accusations that he is the `self-appointed acting PM', and explains why he wants to be elected to Labour's NEC
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The Independent Online
It's Tuesday night, and a world quite outside the media and political beltway Peter Mandelson is normally assumed to inhabit. Labour's most controversial figure is charming a large group of leading Asian journalists and editors in Westminster's best known Indian restaurant.

The event was arranged only last Thursday, but everyone who is anyone in the thriving South Asian sector of London's fourth estate is out in force. The atmosphere is convivial, the curry the Kundan's most delicious, the MP Keith Vaz's welcoming speech a gracious tribute to how much "we in the Labour Party all owe to the Minister without Portfolio". In his own speech Mandelson lays heavy emphasis on the need to improve race relations, and he appeals to the editors to help make the Millennium Experience a true celebration for every aspect of a "multi-faith, multi-community" British society. There is the obligatory garland - of appropriately red roses - to go round the minister's neck. There are quite a lot of jokes about his ubiquity; the distinguished Indian magazine editor KK Singh remarks that the Minister without Portfolio is really "the minister of every portfolio". But then Mandelson describes how proud he was recently to be given - by the long-retired civil servant Max Nicholson, who worked for his grandfather Herbert Morrison - a faded photograph of the then deputy prime minister helping the first Indian high commissioner to raise the new flag that momentous August day exactly 50 years ago. There is a burst of warmly spontaneous applause.

It's difficult, at least just now, to imagine an encounter with Fleet Street and the mainstream TV networks passing off quite as amicably as this one. Mandelson is wearily annoyed with the latest offence: a story apparently written by a Times diarist who lives two doors down from him in Notting Hill, and has taken the trouble to spot that his car tax disc has run out. But this is trivial compared with a fortnight of relentless headlines depicting him as arch manipulator of the news, Rasputin, self- appointed acting Prime Minister and goodness knows what else. Mandelson has become the story.

About the reasons for this, he is emphatically clear: "The Tories say it. The BBC run with it and the newspapers run with it and report it as fact. Whatever it is. Mandelson's taking over; Mandelson's a megalomaniac. Mandelson's doing this; Mandelson's doing that. It's all a way of diverting attention from what the Tories really fear, which is the Government's record, its effectiveness and its enduring popularity. They'd rather discuss anything other than that. If they can set me up as a whipping- boy, they have no hesitation in doing so."

He isn't even in the Cabinet, and yet has he not thrust himself into the limelight as the government's chief ministerial spokesman?

"I was appointed on 1 May as minister responsible for co-ordinating the presentation of government policy, in effect being the government spokesman. Instead of being, behind the scenes off the record, an `in the dark' briefer, I'm a spokesman. What is surprising or unusual about that? It becomes particularly exposed in August when so many other ministers are away. Normally, departmental issues would be fronted by departmental ministers."

What's more, he says, the big media events of this month have been issues that have certainly affected the Government, but, by their very nature, aren't matters of departmental policy: the tragic suicide of the MP Gordon McMaster, the failure to win Uxbridge, the break-up of Robin Cook's marriage, Lord Simon's shares. "I was asked to carry on co-ordinating the Government's message during August. I've been doing it since May. But no one's commented about it or cared about it. It's just been there. But in August things which go completely unremarked for the rest of the year suddenly become stories. That is the definition of an August story."

So let's turn to the top item on the charge sheet, that he wound up the story on a Foreign Office investigation into the leaking of information to Chris Patten's biographer Jonathan Dimbleby for the crude purpose of distracting attention from Robin Cook's marital break-up.

Not so, he says emphatically. That frantic Saturday, when it became clear that the News of the World was going to do the worst, after taking two surgeries in Hartlepool Mandelson sped to Downing Street to co-ordinate every detail of the response with the Foreign Secretary, who himself was travelling down from Edinburgh. He didn't even know about the Sunday Times until the Saturday night, and though he absorbed its contents it was "pretty low down the pecking order" compared with the problems generated by the News of the World. It wasn't until the following day that, faced with demands for confirmation, Mandelson had himself briefed, and established that it was true.

John Sopel, the BBC duty political correspondent, had indeed been told by a Downing Street official that Mandelson would respond to a question on the Patten affair at the end of his BBC World this Weekend interview on the Cook affair, which had been easily the most sensible way of dealing with it. But hadn't Sopel himself implied clearly the following day that he had been encouraged to pursue the story as a welcome distraction from the Cook story?

That wasn't the case, says Mandelson. He had been among those seeking confirmation of the story. What's more, that claim was a "piece of vanity broadcasting by John Sopel. My objection was that the Tories started personal attacks on me, as they always do. The BBC drove the agenda and the papers reported all of it as fact. There are as many macho BBC editors manipulating the news as there are party spin doctors. And as for some of the political correspondents, they are vaulting over each other in their ambition to take Robin Oakley's job. [Oakley is the BBC's political editor.] Hopefully Robin will be around for a long time."

Is it really in the Government's interests to attack BBC journalists in this way, or to have had his famous subsequent spat with the BBC World at One presenter Martha Kearney? He hadn't attacked Martha Kearney - "read the transcript". But there had been an agreement that he would be questioned on the Government's record over its first 100 days. "Why should we accept the BBC agenda, which is essentially about itself and its own preoccupation with itself and my role at the expense of the listeners' interest in the Government's record, their schools, their health service, the fight against crime, what we're doing about unemployment. You don't usually make converts when you take on a BBC interviewer, but my postbag suggests the public likes politicians who stand up for themselves. Conservatives are outraged by my audacity. Labour people give three cheers that I stuck to my agenda."

Mandelson is palpably frustrated that the press ignores most of his activity as a below-the-line politician. Mandelson mates say that while his August job is to "make sure Tony Blair enjoys his holiday in peace, and to be a lightning conductor", luminaries of the seniority of Sir Robin Butler are already going round Whitehall saying what a good strategic job he is doing at the Cabinet Office. He himself says: "People just don't realise that about 20 per cent of my day is spent on press matters, and 80 per cent on the co-ordination of government business and strategic policy work." In normal times, "when I leave the 9am meeting each day [on government presentation, chaired by Mandelson], managing the press is in the hands of Alastair Campbell [Downing Street press secretary and, like the PM, on holiday] and his team. I often don't visit the subject again until the next day. I am involved in the detail of committee work and what the Cabinet Office does in knitting together what the Government is doing."

Some of this activity will surface dramatically today, when Mandelson devotes much of his Fabian Lecture to the topic of social exclusion, and the Prime Minister's orders for a new Cabinet Office unit, reporting directly to him, to redeem Labour's pre-election pledge to make Britain a less divided society. Mandelson's use of today's lecture to show that Labour is indeed sensitive to exclusion of the poor - or, as politicians prefer not to call it, the underclass - is an important marker for the Government. But it matters to him personally, too, as a candidate for election to the National Executive of the Labour Party.

Why is he standing, when surely he already has all the power he can handle? First, because he thinks the NEC should be a proper executive body which takes a real grip of the party's administration and money, more than it does. "I think having attended the NEC's meetings for 10 years as a senior party official, I do know something about how the party could be made more professional." But, secondly, because he believes: "The misgivings that some people have of me is of having seemingly unaccountable power, that I'm put in a position of influence, of leader's patronage, and have a clout and wield power which is wholly dependent on the leader and is not accountable to anything or anyone else in the party. I sympathise with that view. I'm not standing for the NEC because I want to distance myself from Tony Blair, or necessarily because I want to establish greater independence from Tony Blair - but because I want to be recognised by the party for what I am and what I do, in my own right. And for the party to feel that having put me in position and elected me to it, that I'm accountable to them as a result."

While Blair hasn't declared his hand, Mandelson remains firmly in favour of electoral reform - though to the alternative vote system which Liberal Democrats view as an unworthy substitute for true PR. On Tam Dalyell's steadfast opposition to Labour's devolution plans - including a remark that Mandelson's claim that it will underpin the union is "silly" - he says, sensibly, "You'll never silence Tam. And in a party which is as strong as confident as ours, you shouldn't try to do so." But he insists that once the referendums are over, and assuming they produce a "yes" vote, "then I would expect Labour MPs to respect that mandate and act and vote accordingly in the House of Commons."

Will it not then be a grim setback for his political career if he fails to be elected to the NEC. No, he says, a "disappointment". Not many Labour politicians, particularly those below Cabinet rank, make it to the NEC on the first attempt. And, no, despite all the suggestions that he should be given a Cabinet job with all dispatch, he will not speculate on the subject. There are no early reshuffles in sight, and he is very happy doing his current job, thanks very much.

If nothing else, today's Fabian lecture should present a more rounded Mandelson than the pantomime villain image of the last fortnight.