Yesterday's man must put his wig on the table

David Aaronovitch on Mo and Mandy

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"In my view", said the Prime Minister on the Today programme yesterday, "he is one of the most extraordinary and talented people in British politics. It is not just the Labour Party that is lucky to have him, it's the country that's lucky to have him

The paragon in question was Peter Mandelson, rebuffed on Monday in his attempt to be elected to Labour's National Executive. The Labour Party had not felt that he was quite enough of a great guy, and the country (as yet) shows little sign of understanding its enormous good fortune. Mr Blair - usually so adept at capturing the popular mood - was dealing with a gulf in perceptions.

How might he have explained this to himself? Was it down to some piece of mass false consciousness - with the attitudes of the ordinary person shaped by inaccurate and lazy journalism? Conceivably. God alone knows that the normative nature of the British press makes it quite possible that a loose characterisation made one year will stick for ever. (The image of Machiavelli, the Prince of Spin has been immensely seductive.) But even allowing for such intellectual sloppiness, it is nevertheless very hard to make such a label stick, if there is no truth in it whatsoever. There are many who consider themselves to have been badly or roughly treated by Peter Mandelson - run over, if you like, as he steamed towards the main goal. For Mr Blair - object always of Mandelson's attention and charm - it may be hard to imagine what those who bear the tyre tracks really feel.

Perhaps Mr Blair accepts instead this week's dominant theory: that the NEC election result saw Mandelson suffering for Blairism. According to this, he acted as a conduit for the party's suppressed frustration at the necessary discipline that had been imposed upon them, and the painful changes that had helped catapult them into government. Blair was untouchable; his counsellor, however, could safely be lynched. Again, there must be a measure of truth in this. But on the same day - Monday - there was one standing ovation given to a successful candidate for the Executive - Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam, a woman who is in no sense Old Labour. There is no obvious matter of substance on which she differs from Peter Mandelson or her leader.

So what is it about Mowlam that generates such affection; affection denied to to her influential colleague? It is, of course, her personality. It is obvious to anyone from the way she answers questions, her tactility, her expressions of self-doubt, her unfinished sentences and her hesitation, that Mowlam is spontaneous and generous - an organic politician. Like the wig on the table. Nothing is hidden.

Mowlam suggests an inclusive and open politics, whose greatest danger is naivety, not megalomania. Mandelson, by contrast, never suggests naivety. In public he appears to be a creature of calculation and angles. His suits are superb, his shoes shined to a high polish, his hair seems to be slicked back. He answers interviewer's questions with an exaggerated exactness, even those which are personal. You believe that you see only that which he thinks it advantageous for you to see.

A classic example was Mandelson's own reaction to his defeat. "A touch of humility is good for everyone," he told us, "particularly a politician, and particularly me". This is no good. Humility - by its nature - is not something that you can boast about. You cannot imagine such a phrase coming from Mowlam's lips.

This does not mean that Mandelson is insincere in wishing to reinvent himself. He is a far more thoughtful and innovative man than almost all of his government colleagues. His instincts, like Blair's, are amazingly acute, and it is for these qualities that he now wishes to be known. The almost stifling single-mindedness of the last soul-crushing two-year-long election campaign now over, he can let the world see his strategic side.

But this is no longer enough. The Diana fortnight showed just how great is the popular hunger for authenticity, for a genuineness of emotion. The minor corruptions of the last government included the fact that they answered every question with regard to how they would look, rather than with any interest in the truth. This - the politics of small, self-perpetuating male groups, exacerbated by the conspiratorial relationship that exists between politicians and many political journalists (the spinners and those willing to be spun) - is not acceptable any more. It perished somewhere between May 1st and Althorp.

So - all of a sudden - the personification of the modernisation process himself looks strangely out of tune with the times. He seems to be an Eighties and Nineties figure, where Mo better captures the spirit of the millennium. The thing is, pluralism is not just a matter of what you say. It may not even simply be a matter of what you do. It's what you are. Or, to borrow a phrase form the early days of the feminist movement - the personal is the political. A new dawn had broken, has it not?

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