One of the most remarkable developments in British politics over the past year has been the transformation of Peter Mandelson from a has-been politician in a comfortable Brussels exile, to the most powerful man in the country: saviour of Gordon Brown’s prime-ministership, deputy prime minister in all but name, and festooned with possibly the most magnificent array of titles of any politician since the Reformation. Take a deep breath for:
The Right Honourable the Baron Mandelson of Foy in the county of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the county of Durham, First Secretary of State, Lord President of the Privy Council and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.
As William Hague observed recently, “It would be no surprise to wake up in the morning and find that he had become an archbishop.”
The not-yet-archbishop Mandelson is the subject of a fascinating profile in this month’s issue of Prospect. The writer, Edward Docx, summarises Mandelson’s complex personality by describing the challenge that would face a playwright or novelist asked to depict:
…a man who was both fiercely clever and unfathomably daft, both formidably direct and slyly oblique. A man who was loyal, disloyal, arrogant, insecure, brilliant, gregarious, shy, thick-skinned, thin-skinned, waspish, expansive, wry, camp, cutting and collusive; a supremely perceptive man, the best giver of advice of his generation; a man blind to the effect of his own behaviour, a terrible taker of advice; a vain, narcissistic man, self-sickened on occasion with amour propre; a generous, warm, selfless man; a man prepared to sacrifice himself again and again for the cause of his leader and his party; a man with tenacity, courage, stamina and endurance; a sneak; a man beloved by his friends, a serial godfather; an irredeemably adolescent man with a predilection for cheap theatrics; a small-time gossip; the best strategist of a generation and likewise the best briefer; an attention seeker; a sulker and a door-slammer; a grudge-peddler; a self-dramatist; a putter up of backs; a man popular where you think he wouldn’t be and unpopular where you think he might be loved; a first-rate minister – detailed, efficient, skilful; a decision-maker; a fool, a fine talent and an oracle.
Mandelson is sometimes perceived as a Labour outsider – and his nickname, “the Prince of Darkness”, bears testimony to the suspicion and dislike which many have towards him. However, Mandelson was born “into what might be called Labour party aristocracy”. He is the grandson of Clement Attlee’s deputy prime minister, Herbert Morrison, and was born in 1950s Hampstead, at a time when:
…Hampstead was choking with the Labour party and its leaders – Gaitskell, Foot and dozens of their acolytes. Most importantly, the Wilsons lived down the road: a young Peter watched them leave for Downing Street, borrowed their son’s Cub uniform and was invited to visit the prime minister in June 1965 – just as his mother Mary had been invited by Ramsay MacDonald a generation previously.
Docx argues that, with this heritage, Mandelson “sees himself as the guardian-in-chief of the Labour party”. Unlike the other members of New Labour’s founding triumvirate – Tony Blair (son of a Tory) and Gordon Brown – Mandelson grew up in the heyday of Labour’s metropolitan power, and this has informed his belief that Labour needs to be a centrist party, free from the ideological obsessions that were tearing it apart when he began his political career in 1979:
He grew up in a place and time when the Labour party were winners – when Labour leaders expected Downing Street. He was there in a way that no other current senior party figure was. And this to him is the real old Labour – a time of glamour and power and prestige and entitlement and seeing the Wilsons off to Downing Street. To him the left-wing and union hijack of the 1970s and early 1980s was “new” Labour – dowdy buttie-eating interlopers crazed by cod-socialism and Trotsky-chic.
Hence, as Docx concludes, “New Labour” wasn’t all that new, in Mandelson’s eyes:
I believe he helped to create “new” Labour as a way of restoring the “old” Labour as he remembered it from his childhood – the Labour of his father and grandfather’s generation, the Labour of winners, of leaders. In this sense, Peter Mandelson is the most old Labour politician in the party.