Peter Mandelson is in a state of confusion. “I have to keep reminding myself I am a member of this government,” he says. Even more disconcertingly, Britain’s business secretary and comeback king briefly appeared in danger of becoming popular. “Tony Blair used to say his mission would be complete when the Labour party learned to love Peter,” Lord Mandelson recalled this week. “In my first few weeks back in the government there was a risk of that coming true. I found it all slightly disorientating.”
Less than three months after Lord Mandelson’s resurrection to sit in Gordon Brown’s cabinet, things are returning to normal. His decision this week to part-privatise the Royal Mail has reawakened old loathings. “Dogs return to their own vomit,” observed Austin Mitchell, a Labour MP, a reference to Lord Mandelson’s attempt to privatise the Royal Mail a decade ago in a previous incarnation in the government. “Business as usual,” the 55-year-old minister sighs.
Lord Mandelson’s return to British politics in Mr Brown’s October reshuffle goes down as perhaps the most surprising political development at Westminster for years. Nobody was more surprised than the former EU trade commissioner, who turned up at 10 Downing Street with a return rail ticket to Brussels and no change of clothes.
Returning to the cabinet for a third time is remarkable enough. That the job offer was made by Mr Brown made it even more so: for more than 10 years the two men waged what Lord Mandelson calls an “uncivil war”, one of the most intense feuds in politics.
Although Mr Brown’s revival is linked to his handling of the economic crisis, Lord Mandelson’s return was the symbolic moment in which Labour, faced with economic and electoral disaster, buried old rivalries. Lord Mandelson has received much of the credit for this – and indeed has not been shy in taking it, too, noting he “stabilised” the febrile mood in the party. He is often ascribed mythical powers at Westminster, especially by opposition Conservatives, who refer to him as the POD: the Prince of Darkness.
Remarkable events have followed his return. Labour MPs suddenly stopped trying to topple Mr Brown; the prime minister was transformed from a phone-throwing robot into a confident leader; the government seemed to acquire a new purpose; and the party has eroded the Tories’ 20-point opinion poll lead. Some polls now suggest the lead is a mere 5 percentage points.
Lord Mandelson – he now sits in Britain’s upper house – is everywhere: on the radio, on television, where he has playfully flirted with the idea of a guest appearance on Strictly Come Dancing, the BBC show. He sits on 31 out of 39 cabinet committees and is a dominant figure in cabinet discussions. Last week he was at the heart of talks with banks, drawing up a package to help the car industry and mapping out a new industrial policy. He is in constant contact with Mr Brown. Before a government budget statement last month he held five separate meetings with him in one day. To some political insiders, he has gone from being Mr Brown’s enemy to deputy prime minister in all but name.
Peter Benjamin Mandelson was born into an established political family in London in 1953. His grandfather, Herbert Morrison, was in the cabinet after the Wall Street crash. “The crisis split the party down the middle,” Lord Mandelson recalls. He is determined history should not repeat itself. In his maiden speech in the House of Lords in October, he noted his father, Tony, so enjoyed politics he drove his car into the precincts of the Palace of Westminster, relying on “a cheery wave and a copy of Hansard left on the shelf of the car to reassure the single policeman”. He was closer to his mother, Mary, who died in 2006. She was a more reticent figure, spurning the social and political spotlight and once asking her father to keep her out of “beastly politics”.
Mr Mandelson acquired his image as a sinister media manipulator in the 1980s as Labour’s communications chief. He transformed the image of a socialist party, trading the red flag for the red rose. When John Smith, Labour’s leader, died in 1994, Mr Brown believed his friend would back his leadership bid. Instead, he backed Tony Blair, leading to years of rancour.
Mr Mandelson became MP for Hartlepool and joined Mr Blair’s government in 1997. Declaring that spin was dead, he attempted to forge a career as a minister but was forced to resign twice – in 1998 and 2001 – first over an undisclosed home loan from a fellow Labour MP; then over his role in acquiring a British passport for an Indian businessman (for which he was later cleared of any wrongdoing).
Throughout the Blair years, Mr Mandelson remained Labour’s top strategist yet many Labour supporters hated him for his apparent disdain for the party’s socialist past. In 2004 he moved to Brussels to oversee European trade policy. He threw himself into a fruitless search for a world trade deal. It was dull, technical work, enlivened by occasionally tetchy exchanges with Bob Zoellick, the former US trade representative, most notably over which of them had hung up the phone on the other.
Mr Brown came back into his life in March 2008 when the two met in Brussels. They had barely spoken for years. Few believed their meeting would last the allotted 20 minutes. It ran on for more than an hour. “The key thing is that Tony Blair is out of the equation now,” says a friend of Lord Mandelson. “They are back to how they were before.”
Yet there are differences. While Mr Brown has long been uneasy rubbing shoulders with the business and social jetset, Mr Mandelson is a fixture on the elite social scene – a political aristocrat at ease with the scions of corporate dynasties, whom he entertains in his Regency house near Regent’s Park. It is his ties to this world, including Rupert Murdoch, Nat Rothschild and Oleg Deripaska, the Russian oligarch, that got him into trouble in October when The Sunday Times reported that Lord Mandelson had “dripped pure poison” about Mr Brown into the ear of George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, during a Corfu holiday with Mr Deripaska.
The affair damaged Mr Osborne more, but it offered a reminder that Lord Mandelson attracts trouble. His ministerial career to date has been measured in months and nobody can be sure he will still be in the cabinet at the next general election. But if he helps Labour to an improbable fourth election victory, some members of his party may yet learn to love him.