A semi-conscious Simon Hoggart attends a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party in which the Prince of Darkness has replaced Gordon — and is cheered to the rafters
It was one of those dreams we all have. It had its own internal logic: everything that occurs seems to make perfect sense, and it’s only when we wake up that we realise the whole thing was absurd and silly. The other night I dreamed I was a Labour MP and we were in the Grand Committee Room welcoming the new leader of our party.
In my semi-conscious lucubrations, it seemed perfectly natural that this should be Peter Mandelson. The fact that no majority of the MPs, unions and party members who choose the new leader would find Mandelson acceptable was irrelevant. Possibly the fact that Ladbrokes had just announced they were taking more money on Mandelson for next Labour leader than on everyone else combined had addled my brain.
It seemed so natural. The disastrous Norwich by-election, followed by the shattering result in Michael Martin’s Glasgow seat, a conference which was the political equivalent of cage fighting, coupled with poll ratings in freefall, heading in the same direction as sterling and the stock market as the money people realised that ‘quantitative easing’ was just smart new jargon for debauching the currency — all these had created uncontainable panic among Labour MPs. They had long assumed that they were heading for opposition; what they actually faced was obliteration. There was no longer any such thing as a safe Labour seat. The election could make Blair’s 1997 landslide seem a minor blip.
Inevitably the men in the M&S suits — including the prime minister’s old friend, the chief whip Nick Brown, and the man who ran his ‘campaign’ in 2007, Jack Straw — had gone to Downing Street with the bad news. Gordon Brown, neither a fool nor a slouch, knew that the end had come. He announced his resignation that lunchtime. With only a few months before the last possible date for an election, the headless and fear-stricken MPs acted swiftly to prevent the unions and members having any say. Johnson had backed out; nobody wanted Miliband, at least not yet. Mandelson was their choice, and the only one offered. There would be an emergency bill to let him renounce his peerage, and he would parachute into Durham North-West, where Labour’s 53 per cent majority might just get him back in the Commons.
In my dream the room was packed, with late arrivals unable to force their way in. Mandelson surveyed his new kingdom as we banged desks in the traditional welcome, smiled his curious slanting smile, then uncoiled himself from his chair. I wondered, as in real life, if he would speak or simply hiss.
‘Fellow parliamentarians,’ he began, ‘fellow socialists!’ Socialists? Clearly a joke. The room erupted with laughter. ‘I think,’ he went on, ‘that we are going to have fun!’
Fun? Had the man gone mad? The party facing a terrible defeat, the real chance of coming third behind the despised Lib Dems, and he was blithering about fun? We knew that in summer Mandelson had reinvented himself as Mr Nice Guy — a ‘pussycat’ as he put it — who would no more plot against a colleague than bite the heads off puppies, but fun?
‘Yes, fun!’ he persisted. ‘Is politics such a grim calling that we cannot enjoy it? As you should know, but may not realise, my whole career has been devoted to improving the lot of ordinary, hard-working people. For me, that is pure pleasure. Helping people who need help is a delight and a joy, and if it isn’t we should find other work.
‘I am accused of many things. Am I ambitious? I plead guilty, but my ambition is to make our people’s lives more prosperous, safer and healthier.
‘Am I conniving and conspiratorial? I am indeed. I will connive and conspire with anyone, I will use any ruse or any plot if it helps our children to get a better education, our workers to find secure employment, our troops to have the support and equipment they need.
‘I am accused of being a back-stabber. So be it. I will happily run a sword through poverty, through ignorance, crime, disease — all the problems that blight lives in this country.’
There was an uneasy stirring in the audience. Outside my dream I could hear the whining of a milk float. Back inside my fantasy I could detect the sound of my colleagues wondering whether, in spite of their forebodings, they had made the right choice after all. Was this the man they knew, for whom evasion and misdirection were always the default options? The man who could skulk in broad daylight, whose casual way with money had caused the first of his resignations, and which would inevitably remind voters of the ghastly expenses scandal? The story that he had once mistaken mushy peas for guacamole might be apocryphal, but it reminded many that this was someone who would be more at home in the Ivy Club than a pub or chippy.
‘I realise,’ he went on, ‘that I have won your support but not yet earned your trust. I will have to do that. All I can do is plead that I am a changed man, a chastened man, a more trustworthy man, and I hope a better man.
‘Can we win the next election? We can. It will be hard, it will take a monumental effort, but if you think that I am a glib, PR-obsessed inveigler, take a look at Cameron and Osborne and the whole slimy shower of them! The voters have no inclination to trust them or their appalling party. Now we have a few short months to make sure that they trust us again, to do what Labour always does: to support the many not the few, the real, deserving people of this country!’
He sat down to a sound he had never heard: a Labour party audience applauding him to the echo. My alarm squeaked, and I stumbled downstairs, dazed and confused, in search of strong coffee.