Next year marks an important political milestone: it will be 25 years since Peter Mandelson entered front-line Labour politics. This silver jubilee deserves street parties, at the very least. Leaving aside his time as director of the British Youth Council (including that infamous trip to rub shoulders with the Soviets in Havana at the height of the cold war) and a brief, inglorious stint as a Lambeth councillor, Mandelson really arrived on the scene in 1985 as Labour’s director of communications. When he entered Labour’s HQ in Walworth Road, he found a ramshackle organisation, a ‘no we can’t’ culture, and a dead pot plant on his desk. It is a remarkable feat that just two years later, Mandelson could co-ordinate a credible Labour election campaign which achieved its strategic goal of Labour coming second, not third.
Since the mid-eighties Mandelson has been at the very heart of Labour’s leadership, being chief courtier to two kings, Hartlepool’s MP for 12 years, and a Cabinet minister who has survived not one, but two resignations. Even during two periods of exile – under John Smith, who couldn’t be doing with all that new-fangled spin nonsense, and as European Commissioner – Mandelson remained in the public eye with well-chosen media appearances.
But it is Mandelson’s career since returning to government in 2008 which is truly remarkable.
First, it is astonishing that he agreed to come back at all. The caricature of the man as lover of the high-life, with his expensive furniture, clothes, homes and holidays, might suggest that once he left the European Commission he might want to earn some serious cash on various boards, and spent more time on yachts. By agreeing to return to the front-line, at a time when Labour was behind in the polls and being widely written off, he displayed genuine loyalty to the Labour Party and its values.
Second, by coming back he shored up Gordon Brown’s position as leader and Prime Minister. It allowed Brown a spectacular reshuffle coup de theatre in 2008, and ensured that subsequent threats to the leadership were blunted, sabotaged, or headed off at the pass. History will show that the main reason Gordon Brown was leader of the Labour Party at the 2010 general election was because of Peter Mandelson. With Ed Balls and Harriet Harman both reported to be euphemistically ‘on manoeuvres’, he with left-sounding articles in the New Statesman, she using polling to build her contacts database, it is Peter Mandelson who is seen as the uber-loyalist.
Third, his reward for being such a useful engine is an amassing of political power and influence across Whitehall of Heseltinesque proportions. His private office is vast. Over 30 ministers report to him; other cabinet ministers have four or five junior ministers. He sits on the majority of cabinet committees, where the real decisions are taken before cabinet rubber-stamps them. That’s more than John Prescott was on, and more than Labour’s current deputy leader. It is no hyperbole to suggest that Peter Mandelson is the most powerful person in British politics. When commentators suggest he is the Deputy Prime Minister in all but name, it woefully underestimates his real influence and role.
Fourth, Mandelson is now driving Labour’s election strategy. His speech to Progress on Monday was widely reported, and I shall return to its substance in my column on the Progress website tomorrow. But what was significant was the fact that it was being made by the business secretary, rather than anyone else (including the Prime Minister). It nailed down two significant areas of election strategy: that Cameron will be painted as the leader of a right-wing party which hasn’t changed since the days of Thatcher, Tebbit and Keith Joseph. Dave the Chameleon was laid to rest on Monday, unmourned. And, more importantly, it established the main dividing line for the election. Not cuts versus investment, which no-one believed, but ‘wise spending’ under Labour, and reckless cuts from the Tories, who, as he told us, are ‘foaming at the mouth’ at the prospect of a smaller state. Such is the acceptance of Mandelson’s centrality to Labour’s fortunes, that few paused to ask why he announced Labour’s election strategy a couple of hours before the political cabinet which agreed it.
At a time when so many Labour MPs are deserting, Mandelson is marching us towards the sound of gunfire. Surrounded by riddled political corpses, he is the last mandy standing. Listening to him at the LSE on Monday, you could just about imagine that we can pull a decent election campaign out of the bag, and even stand a fighting chance.
In a world of quitters, Labour has found its fighter. There’s a story that Tony Blair once said that his modernisation of the Labour Party would be complete when Labour learned to love Peter Mandelson. I can’t find the evidence or source for the quotation, but it doesn’t matter. Like the mushy peas story, or membership of the Bilderberg Group, it’s just another part of the Mandelson mythology. Okay, street parties might be going too far. But after a quarter century, it is time at last for Labour to learn to love Peter Mandelson.Old Holborn lights blue touch paper and stands well back