How to be Peter Mandelson

He outwits interviewers, and charms enemies. Yesterday, he held the Labour Conference in his hand. So what can mortals learn from Lord Mandelson? From getting rich to keeping fit, our experts offer a 10-point guide to the tricks and tactics he uses to stay on top

Tuesday 29 September 2009 00:00 BST

1. How to face tough questions – and win

There are three things about interviewing Peter Mandelson that stand out, and the prospective MP could do worse than adopt any of them. First is that he doesn't answer the question. All politicians don't do that, though Mandelson doesn't do it more than most, you might say.

Second, when he tires of evasion, his grip on the arguments and the facts is usually formidable, not an invariable rule in this government. Sometimes you wonder if it's only Mandelson who still has a functioning political mind.

Third, and far more entertaining, is the way an interview with him turns, well, not aggressive precisely, more "assertive". Mandelson is audacious enough to tell his interlocutor what the rules of the game are, what he should or shouldn't be asking, "what your readers/listeners/viewers are REALLY interested in", that sort of thing. Yesterday he boldly told Jim Naughtie on The Today Programme that there just wasn't enough time left in the interview to answer questions about the public finances, a remarkable assertion of control. But those exchanges were relatively well tempered. Much more enjoyable, to the point of becoming collectors' items, are Mandelson's increasingly-acrimonious encounters with Naughtie's co-presenter, Evan Davis. Much to Davis' evident irritation, Mandelson always sets the terms of the interview, the pair of them wasting valuable airtime on whether or not he, Mandelson, should be allowed to discuss the Tories' polices.

Davis says he can ask the the Tories about their polices; Mandelson tells Davis that the essence of politics is the choice between the parties, so he's going to carry on taking about George Osborne anyway. Evan sighs with frustration; Mandelson sits for an icy second or two in unsettling silence. Both maintain an exaggerated, faux civility – "thank you secretary of state","great pleasure", which just points up the cattiness. If there is one thing that really winds up a journalist it is being told how to do their job. Mandelson knows it. We really shouldn't let him get away with it.


2. How to dress for any occasion

Just as he seems unable to acquire one title and stick to it, Peter Mandelson has trouble selecting one consistent look or style. A gold-standard meddler in party politics, he loves to meddle with the simple Modern Politician look. He has the good taste to choose classic British tailoring from the Savile Row master Richard James, but matches it with stripy shirts from Hilditch & Key in Jermyn Street that shout Arriviste Provincial Banker and look terrible on anyone over 35. In a subtle twist, he then adds a blue satin tie, an accessory seldom seen except as evening wear among the gangster fraternity.

And remember the outcry in February when he rocked up to his first Cabinet meeting in a blue suit, blue tie – and a V-necked, crushed-strawberry jumper? The only human being on whom this look worked was Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, as he blew away a quartet of felonious punks in his lunch hour. What possessed Mandelson?

His thin, crafty face, and underfed, living-on-his-nerves frame are best in navy and charcoal-grey suits, with a white shirt and subtly spotty tie; he departs from this look at his peril. For a crucial meeting with the Chinese Minister of Commerce, Chen Deming, he affected a light-golden-brown, double-breasted number with a matching gold tie, and looked pasty and uncomfortable behind his welcoming smile. Perhaps he'd read that, to the Chinese, gold represents joy, optimism, hope, caution and intelligence.

Away from the conference table, Mandelson has some way to go in cracking the leisure look. He's been photographed walking his dog, wearing a nondescript grey tracksuit with a US flag on the sleeve and a pair of Hush Puppies. It's really not a good look. (The bag of dog poo he was carrying didn't help: I mean, where'll you get the shoes to match the bag?) Would a simple combination of jeans, trainers and The Wire T-shirt have been so hard? Two days ago, he and the dog graced the cover of a Sunday magazine, both trying to look relaxed and chilled-out; Mandy wore jeans and blue suede loafers – but dammit, he just had to wear one of his Jermyn Street banker's shirts again. Off-duty, Peter, think off-duty. As for the get-up in which he greeted the press after his August holiday in Corfu – white chinos, off-white shirt, blue suede loafers and unstructured, zip-fronted jacket – he looked like a civil servant gingerly trying the "smart-casual" look for the first time.

Here is a man who'd like to project a look of serious gravitas as befits his position, only to find little excrescences of stripes, skittishness, satin and crushed strawberry breaking out all the time. He wants to be a beacon of light, but keeps turning into a candelabra. Or in his case, a mandelabra.


3. How to climb up the property ladder

Just over a decade ago the Business Secretary could only afford a £475,000 home in Notting Hill by borrowing the whole amount. Now he lives in a mortgage-free £2.5m town house on the end of Regent's Park. How has he done it? In part, it's luck. He bought and sold in a rising property market. But he was also prepared to spend money on improvements. Then there's the matter of being clever with financing, mixing standard mortgage deals with loans from friends, plus an inheritance and cash made in a business deal.

His climb began with his Notting Hill house, bought in October 1998 for £475,000. The cash was made up of a £375,000 loan from ex-Paymaster General Geoffrey Robinson plus a mortgage with the Britannia building society. He then spent £50,000 on improvements before selling the place for around £725,000 – a £200,000 profit.

Next was a flat nearby bought for £251,000. He splashed £100,000 on doing it up before selling it in March 2001 for £545,000. That meant pocketing profit of around £250,000, as half the improvement cost was met by the taxpayer for security reasons. That left him with around £400,000 towards his next place.

That was a property in Earls Court bought for £546,000 in March 2001 and sold in November 2003 for £600,000. That added another £50,000 to his war chest, which went towards a Penthouse in St James's, bought for £884,000. That, in turn, was sold for £1.2m in April 2006, meaning the canny Lord had built up around £800,000.

He added to that £452,000 left to him by his mother plus an estimated £136,000 profit from the sale of his former constituency home in Hartlepool. He then put down a £1.65m deposit on his current home near Regent's Park, which cost £2.4m in August 2006.

He needed to borrow £750,000 from HSBC to buy the house, but has since paid off the mortgage with part of the £1.2m he is estimated to have made from shares he held in advertising company Clemmow Hornby Inge which merged with rival WPP in 2007.

Could you do the same? Even assuming you could get the luck of dealing in a rising market and making improvements that actually added to the value of your properties, there would still be one crucial factor missing: well-heeled friends. Mixing in the right circles has certainly helped speed Lord Mandelson's climb up the property ladder.


4. How to get away with things

What sort of satanic pact he made we may not know even when he publishes his memoirs (and what a read those should be), but Lord Mandelson has acquired the sort of immortality generally confined to Greek mythology and science fiction. Politically, he can no longer be harmed, let alone killed. Like Captain Scarlet, he's indestructible.

He has achieved this reversal of status, having been so vulnerable a decade ago that his second "resignation" was purely on reputation, through several factors, some deliberate and others less so.

First and foremost he is a fighter, not a quitter, and there is nothing so admirable to the British as sticking around. Here, as Alan Bennett said, you need only be 90 and capable of eating a boiled egg, and people think you deserve the Nobel Prize.

We also have a taste for brazen chutzpah (returning to Corfu while George Osborne shivered at home) and self-parodic teasing (a pussycat forsooth!). There an arch self-knowingness about the modern Mandy that echoes Tommy Docherty returning to the after dinner speech circuit after being done for perjury with: "Now I know you're not being to believe a word I say ... " and that's almost impossible to resist.

He knows we know he's a rascal, and couldn't care less. There is a law of diminishing returns with moral outrage, and most people long ago grew bored by what he loftily regards as petit bourgeois moralising over his personal ethics and a hands-off relationship with the literal truth.

On the eve of the Labour conference, he didn't rule out remaining in the limelight even under a Conservative administration. He probably had in mind some special envoy position, or a Washington job that involves first-class travel and plenty of dinners with Henry Kissinger. Of course he wouldn't rule out a public position under the Tories; he wouldn't rule out selling the kidneys of orphan babies if he thought it would further his self-interest. He gets away with saying such things because he makes no pretence. He is brazen.

One more thing, too often overlooked. He happens to be, by several light years, the cleverest and most competent Cabinet minister of his generation. Even those who stubbornly cling to ancient loathings acknowledge this, and in troublesome times any amount of naughtiness will be overlooked if the perpetrator appears to know what he's about.

Matthew Norman COLUMNIST

5. How to manage the media

According to interviewer Bryan Appleyard, who travelled to China with him for a profile in last weekend's The Sunday Times Magazine, Peter Mandelson has "taken the battle" to the media in a manner far more sophisticated than the crude approach deployed by Alastair Campbell.

"Mandelson draws you in because you desperately want to hear what he will say next," says Appleyard. "He always gives you the impression of having enormous amounts of information at his disposal, so you feel you have to be quite nice to him or else you might miss the story."

While Campbell confronted the media like an angry bouncer, the smiling Mandy holds a guest list that hints at access to the inner sanctum. A dichotomy results whereby reader responses to online press articles about the First Secretary of State often express a uniform hatred for the subject – while the articles themselves are invariably approving. "This interview isn't journalism. It's marketing and PR," fumed one angry respondent to a recent piece in The Guardian in which Mandelson defined himself as a "kindly pussycat".

Journalists are charmed by him because he gives good copy. "Has Peter Mandelson taken some sort of vow never to give a dull interview?" gushed James Kirkup, political correspondent of The Daily Telegraph. "Since his return from Brussels, the Business Secretary hasn't opened his mouth without committing news in some way or other." Some readers were horrified. "Most of the intelligent amongst us cannot fathom the media attention given to this childish and vitriolic Machiavelli impersonator," said one.

So image conscious is Mandelson that he corrected The Telegraph's diarist Tim Walker, who falsely associated him with a Louis Vuitton bag which he was standing next to in a photograph. As he well understands, modern political journalism is personality-driven and – as pussycat or Machiavelli – he excites the public sufficiently to generate air-time, column inches and page views. That's why PM for PM is such a good story.


6. How to stay in shape

Four years as shadow Chancellor have taken their toll on George Osborne. The lean, hungry Tory boy of 2005 may still be present, but in his face, too, is the jowly grandee of the future. The man being marketed as his opposite number, however, is as svelte as ever. Junior ministers even describe him as "super-fit". So how does Mandy stay in shape?

Back in 2001, Peter Mandelson revealed his free membership of Soho's Third Space gym, which costs £1,180 per month to regular punters. Nowadays he keeps trim on a diet, he recently told an interviewer, that "chiefly involves ... being hungry". He subsists on granola and green tea for breakfast (as recommended to him by lifestylist Carole Caplin), eats nothing for lunch besides a tiffin bar from Pret A Manger (fetched by an aide), and only eats in the evening when he is invited to dinners. He occasionally filches an apple from one of his fellow peers.

According to nutrition experts, the calorie intake Mandelson describes is less than a third of that advised for a man in his mid-50s. He has, however, recovered sufficiently from a recent spat over the state of the UK economy with Starbucks' CEO to be photographed drinking from one of their coffee cups. Should it contain the coffee shop's signature tall latte, it could represent a further 180 categories of the necessary daily 2,500.

Mandelson did briefly hit the headlines due to ill health last October – the day after his appointment as business secretary, no less – when he was rushed to hospital at 3am to undergo an emergency kidney stones operation. Luckily, health minister and surgeon Lord Darzi was on hand to give him a lift. Last month he had a routine operation on his (benignly) enlarged prostate – a common condition in men over 40 (Mandelson is 55) – and took the opportunity to praise the NHS for his treatment.

When Mandelson was sacked from the cabinet in 2001, psychologist Oliver James questioned Mandelson's mental health and suggested he was a suicide risk. Let's hope James isn't on a diet; he's going to have to eat his words.


7. How to make friends with the rich and powerful

To begin with, you'll need to share with him a special gift: the secret of Peter Mandelson's success as a supreme networker, mover and shaker might well be his elephantine memory. He possesses almost total recall when it comes to names, faces, meetings, people's children, which often surprises and charms the person to whom he is speaking.

How does he woo the "filthy rich", a group he once said he was "profoundly relaxed" about? He has always felt profoundly relaxed among them. Even before he qualified as "filthy rich" himself – he has no mortgage on his £2.5m London home – he banked at Coutts. The key probably lies in his relaxed confidence, razor-sharp intellect and wit and, of course, in his connections. Although an homme serieux, he is also a gossip, a mix which appeals to the rich and powerful.

Long before becoming a European Commissioner – wrongly believing he would have no future in British politics when Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair – Mandelson had gone international. An avid attender of conferences, he even set up his own think tank, appropriately called Policy Network, so that centre left parties around the world could swap ideas.

He felt instantly at home amongst businessmen in his first stint as Business Secretary in 1998. His contacts book got even fatter when he travelled the world as the EU's Trade Commissioner. He has met many businessmen hungry for titbits to give them an insight into a political world they do not really understand.

Having rich and powerful friends is dangerous for a politician. His links with a wealthy fellow minister Geoffrey Robinson and the multimillionaire Indian businessmen the Hinduja brothers forced his two spectacular resignations from the Cabinet (although accused of helping Srichand Hinduja obtain a passport, he was later cleared of any impropriety). These days Mandelson is extremely careful. Every meeting with a businessman, even on his holidays, is logged with his Permanent Secretary to ensure no conflict of interest arises.

The one-time Prince of Darkness is loving his unexpected spell in the limelight. As the unofficial Deputy Prime Minister, he doesn't need to drop names or convince anyone of his clout. Older and wiser than in his first two spells in government, he does a nice line in self-deprecating humour about his previous flaws. His charm offensive has won over some old enemies and a once-hostile media gives him the benefit of the doubt. For now, at least.

Andrew Grice political editor

8. How to be perfectly groomed

Compared to some of the unkempt male specimens lurking in Westminster, Peter Mandelson is a smoothie. In fact, his smart appearance has attracted almost as much sneering as his various scandals over the years, because in politics, obvious 'grooming' looks like vanity.

However, while in the hoary world of Parliament simply washing your face could be enough to make you Minister for Moisturiser, in the milieu of male grooming the experts aren't so easily impressed and even have a few tips. Deborah Gayle, the Marketing Director at men's salon The Refinery, says: "My team and I think he isn't actually doing much maintenance at all, although he probably has a daily routine of sorts."

Really? But what of speculation that he dyes his hair? "Well, we think there could be some colour in his hair and his eyebrows may have been tinted." Mandelson has denied having his eyebrows plucked, however, saying: "What, pay someone to rip my eyebrows out? Is that some kind of sexual thing?" That clear complexion? Gayle says: "He seems as if he looks after his skin to a degree, but he needs to pay attention to the eye area, which appears tired. He could do with using an eye gel or serum, and a facial would help to clear his congested forehead." Gayle thinks photos of the Business Secretary with a suspicious glow to his skin, only days after returning pasty-white from Corfu, look more like make-up for a TV or public appearance than a wag-style fake tan.

So what is Mandy doing right? "Well he's quite well shaven," observes Gayle. Compared to the Anchorman meets Magnum PI moustache that he wisely shaved off when he arrived at the Commons, anything is well-shaven.


9. How have pleasant holidays – for free

Politicians these days don't really take holidays. In the age of the Blackberry, they just transplant their physical, non-internet-based being to a sunny isle, and let the memos and telephone briefings follow. And Mandy, more smooth than a basking lizard in a safari suit, has redefined the nature of the politico venturing abroad. For starters, how confident do you have to be to effectively cover for Gordon Brown (as happened with Mandelson in August) while chillaxing pool-side in Corfu, throwing souvlaki and Ouzo into your mouth as quickly as ministerial stagecraft leaves it?

Needless to say, our nation's great business czar and protector of trade is something of a moonlighting maestro. Take his pronouncements, earlier in the year, that he would "not go on holiday" until uncertainty over jobs at Vauxhall's Luton and Ellesmere Port plants was secured (he went anyway, but was never pulled up on it).

Then there is his ability to skulk off for a fortnight, indulge in all manner of political skulduggery, and again, come off blemish-free. Last year, he proved it: he badmouthed Gordon Brown to George Osborne while staying at their mutual hedge fund manager mate Nat Rothchild's in Corfu. Osborne leaked the story to the press, but ended up the loser. An unnamed source, whose initials happened to be "PM", revealed Osborne was soliciting funds for his party from a Russian billionaire at the same time.


10. How to keep your private life under wraps

From dodgy mortgages to high-profile holidays, the First Secretary is used to the media scrutinising his life. But there is one area of Peter Mandelson's existence which has tended to remain strikingly above the clamour of Westminster gossip: his personal life. For many years, he made clear his reluctance to discuss his sexuality. Following two high-profile incidents in which he was "outed" (once by Matthew Parris and the other by Diane Abbott) live on air, the BBC blocked any mention of his private life. Unusually in politics, Mandelson has always refused to confirm his homosexuality, letting it become something of a taboo.

After the BBC's embargo, the impression was created that to discuss the matter was disrespectful – homophobic, even. As such, it became a rather powerful privacy-protection tool. In 2000, when he made his first "public appearance" with long-term partner Reinaldo Avila da Silva at a West End performance of the The Graduate, even the most salacious of gossip columns treated the occasion with decorum. Since then, Mandelson has had little need to "protect" the relationship.

Indeed, aside from a brief blip in 2007 when it was reported that the relationship had ended, there has been little to say. Instead, he has taken to providing controlled insights into his life, in the form of witty, slightly camp, asides; he recently entertained a press gallery lunch with tales of being woken by "Jack tugging at my duvet", only clarifying after a deliberate pause that Jack was "my dog, of course".

Such soundbites are too good to ignore, and Mandelson knows it, so he uses them to satisfy the press's appetite. Rather like Boris Johnson, Mandelson himself makes such good copy that it can be difficult to trump his own work, no matter how much digging one does.

Alice-Azania Jarvis DIARY EDITOR

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in