I hastened last Friday to the Grays Inn studios of five news on Channel 5 to be interviewed for their 7 p.m. bulletin alongside Nick Watt of the Guardian, on the sensation of the hour. The sensation was the planned appointment of Mr Peter Mandelson as an EU commissioner in Brussels.
On time, Mr Watt and I were in place on the sofa. Channel 5’s Charlie Stayt asked us about the appointment. Starting with me, he asked what I made of his Channel’s public opinion poll which had suggested that nine out of ten respondents objected to Mr Mandelson’s appointment. I replied that this said more about the British public — most of whom object to anybody whatsoever joining the Brussels gravy train — than it did about Mandelson.
The three of us chatted about such things for a few minutes before Mr Stayt interrupted. ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘but we have Peter Mandelson himself, live in a studio elsewhere in Britain, to talk to us. We will go over to him now.’
We did. After all, this was a lucky catch for five news. Mandelson’s people had been insistent that if a live interview were to take place at all, it must be at the time of Mr Mandelson’s choosing and must last no more than two minutes at the most. He was in a tearing rush and would then have to dash off within seconds.
The first question Mandelson was asked was about public hostility to his appointment. ‘Well, I agree with …the correspondent to whom you have just been talking,’ he said. Though we are not close friends Mr Mandelson and I know each other and have often met, talked and even worked together, and I bear him no ill will at all. He does know my name.
The interview with the commissioner-designate over, Charlie Stayt returned to Nick Watt and me, and we continued our discussion of his likely prospects in Europe. It is fair to say that we were not unkind about these. Both of us genuinely think he might prove quite good at the job.
But soon it was time to go. Mandelson himself had presumably gone some ten minutes before. Nick and I slid from our sofas in the studio and made our way into the office. ‘Did you hear him?’ I asked Nick; ‘he called me “your previous correspondent”. He knows my name perfectly well but he didn’t want to say it. Bitch.’
An assistant hastened over to us as we switched off and unclipped our lapel microphones and unpocketed our transmitters. ‘You had better know,’ she said, a trifle anxiously, ‘that they’ve just told me Mr Mandelson did not rush off after his interview. He switched off his own mike but kept his earpiece in place and switched on.
‘Nor did he leave when your own interview was over. He just stayed there, listening to what you were saying about him once you were off-air.’
No change there, then. The old Adam remains as he always was. Later that weekend I heard that another journalist who had himself written about Mandelson had been advised (through a mutual friend) that in the soon-to-be-commissioner’s judgment the column had been insufficiently generous.
We are being watched. This troubles us little. Nothing about this appointment should trouble anyone at all. Rarely in politics does an event occur which benefits all parties, costs nobody anything and brings joy to almost all right-minded observers, but this one does. Most decisions in politics are zero-sum games in which one wins and another loses, but sending Mr Mandelson to Brussels can only add to the sum total of human happiness — Mandelson’s included.
His enemies are rid of him. Mr Mandelson has gone away. Forget all that stuff about how Eurostar only takes a few hours and there’s always the telephone and email. If you aren’t there you aren’t there, as Peter will have discovered even in Hartlepool, without much else to do. Now he will be in Belgium with a tremendous amount to do. He’s out of the swim. No wonder Gordon Brown was reportedly deeply content with the move.
His friends, meanwhile, can rejoice in his great promotion. It is no understatement to say that a European commissioner is among the ranks of the most important people in the world. Probably his term will be renewed. By (say) 2012, he will be approaching 60. He (and I) will be old men.
They don’t come back, those we send to Brussels. Only Roy Jenkins offers a partial exception to that rule. Chris Patten, Leon Brittan, Neil Kinnock — all have served with distinction there; none (even should he at first have entertained such ambitions) will long have kept alive much hope of doing anything big in British politics afterwards.
They don’t make their names internationally, either. Perhaps they should, for they matter, but it is only within the European classe politique that a commissioner is a celebrity. Individuals make a difference (look at Lord Cockfield and the Single Market) but their names are rarely associated with their achievements.
They don’t make their fortunes either. I reckon Mr Mandelson will have to take a cut in his income to accept this job. It is hugely comfortable financially and the allowances are kind, but if Mandelson wants to become rich that will have to happen after he leaves and, grey-haired, is sought for the boards of big corporations. He has no history and, I believe, no thoughts of feathering his nest while in office, but even should he wish to, Peter Mandelson can be sure that the indifference of the British press to his daytime work in Brussels will be matched by their zeal to scrutinise every expenses claim for every cream scone he consumes.
So why did he want to go? Not least, one suspects, because his enemies did not want him to. The moment his ill-wishers began whispering to the media that it would be a disgrace for Peter to be rewarded in this way was probably the moment he decided to go for it.
And Tony Blair? We all talked ourselves into a great froth about whether the Prime Minister could take the risk, but the real risk was putting Mandelson in the Cabinet. Mr Blair has been credited for being bold when he has played safe. As for the necessary Hartlepool by-election (about which the newspapers puffed the PM’s alleged worries), one may question how damaging a by-election loss to the Liberal Democrats or Ukip’s Robert Kilroy-Silk would be. Why should ‘momentum’ for a third party worry Mr Blair? In a general election most Liberal gains mean Tory losses; while Ukip is Michael Howard’s nightmare, not Tony Blair’s.
No; whichever way you look at it, everybody wins from this appointment, just so long as Peter carries on believing it’s good for him. So don’t breathe a word, reader. I’m sure he isn’t listening.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.