It’s time to drop the myth of Lord Mandelson as a political genius, says Stephen Pollard. No one has done more to wreck the Labour party
Whatever the election result, one thing is sure: industrial quantities of obloquy will be heaped on Gordon Brown as the man responsible for Labour’s result. But if the party is after the real villain of the piece, it is looking in the wrong place.
Mr Brown was, it was clear from the start, never suitable for the job of Prime Minister. By last summer, such a conclusion was not merely clear, it was being beamed in blinding neon lighting from the door of 10 Downing Street. So long as Gordon Brown remained leader, Labour was guaranteed defeat.
By ensuring Mr Brown’s survival as leader, one man was responsible for that delivering on that guarantee: Lord Mandelson. Tony Blair famously remarked that his project would have succeeded ‘when the Labour party learns to love Peter Mandelson’. Love him? Lord Mandelson should be viewed, even by those few of his fellow modernisers whose careers his behaviour has not destroyed, with something close to contempt.
The most pervasive myth in modern politics — that Mandelson is a genius of political strategy and communication — is utter nonsense. Haughty, moody, lacking in judgment, and possessed by a childlike obsession for hanging out with the ‘in’ crowd, Lord Mandelson has built a career based on the credulousness of those who have fallen for the Mandelson Myth.
Lord Mandelson has failed in every job he has held since his appointment in 1985 as Labour’s communications director. The undoubted professionalism he brought to that role, something hitherto absent from the Labour party, was hailed as a unique skill. As a party functionary he was efficient and, on its own terms, successful. But it was as a party employee that he first began to exhibit his astonishing capacity to create life-long enmity among colleagues and to alienate potential allies and friends. Not, you might think, the most bankable skill for a politician.
As a Cabinet minister, Mandelson has brought only shame to his party, resigning twice in disgrace — in 1998 over his home loan from Geoffrey Robinson, and in 2001 over the Hinduja passport affair. Civil servants who worked with him attest to his competence as a decision maker, but while the ability to take decisions is a prerequisite for success, it is hardly unique to Lord Mandelson. Getting them right is even more useful, and as European commissioner, he was something close to a disaster.
With a coterie of Westminster journalists in his thrall, Lord Mandelson is usually portrayed as clear-sighted and determined, a man not afraid to take the right, tough decisions. But the evidence from his time in Brussels (which I witnessed from my perch in a Brussels think-tank) shows something rather different. Without the compliant media, he had to be judged on his actions — such as almost starting, in his first year, an entirely counterproductive trade war with China.
Five years ago the EU lifted its restrictions on cheap textile imports from China. Imports rose, as one might have expected. But it seems that such an outcome had not occurred to the Trade Commissioner responsible for the decision, Lord Mandelson. And when European manufacturers squealed that they were losing business, his response was not to tell them to match Chinese prices or to move into a business where they were more competitive, but to impose quotas on Chinese imports. Claiming to be a believer in free trade, he decided that he must protect Europe’s textile industry from Chinese imports and impounded deliveries of orders which had already been placed. It takes a special kind of genius to be fighting the wrong fight in a battle with the Chinese on free trade.
Brought back from Brussels by Gordon Brown in October 2008, almost his every action has served, unintentionally but clearly, to trigger his party’s collapse. From the start, the very purpose of his return was to bolster the Labour party’s greatest weakness: Mr Brown. At first glance, this might have seemed a noble act — giving up the baubles and perks of a European commissioner to come to the aid of his struggling party. In reality, it was a move based entirely on his own desperation to return from the exile of Brussels, an ego-flattering call to gallop home to the rescue of the man who had been, since 1994, his greatest foe. (The two men had been close until Lord Mandelson chose after John Smith’s death to ditch the clear loser, Gordon Brown, for the obvious winner, Tony Blair.)
By the middle of last year it was clear that Labour had one chance left to avoid oblivion: removing Mr Brown. Most of the Cabinet were too spineless to move against him. But when one minister, James Purnell, did the honourable and right thing, and resigned, he and others — most notably Tony Blair — expected that Lord Mandelson would offer his support and effectively ensure Mr Brown’s departure.
That he did not must be counted as his greatest betrayal to his party. Without the First Secretary squashing Mr Purnell’s move, Mr Brown would have been a 23-month Prime Minister, and Labour would have been able to go the country with a shiny new leader.
Lord Mandelson might never be Prime Minister but, by protecting Mr Brown, he ensured that he ‘owned’ the existing one. In an interview the day after the non-coup, he described himself as the ‘Prince of Stability’, in mocking reference to his nickname, the Prince of Darkness. Nothing better illustrates Lord Mandelson’s deluded view of politics as a big game, with himself as the sneering, snide puppet-master pulling the strings.
Outside the bubble of Westminster, where his supposed political skills are spoken of with awe, Lord Mandelson is the most widely distrusted politician in the land. In September last year, a poll asked people to rate leading politicians for their trustworthiness. Lord Mandelson came twelfth out of twelve. So it was hardly the savviest move, during an election fought against a backdrop of widespread disillusionment with politics, to have him on our screens — day in, day out — as the front man of the Labour campaign. His unwitting role: reminding voters that if they vote Labour they’ll get the double-whammy of Brown and Mandelson.
His final abject failure, putting himself at the forefront of operations as the de facto campaign manager will, surely, be Lord Mandelson’s final disservice to his party. Labour has been happily following his lead for the past year and a half. But, as always with Peter Mandelson, the path goes nowhere.
Stephen Pollard is editor of the Jewish Chronicle.