James Forsyth

Mandelson: If I can come back, we can come back

Mandelson: If I can come back, we can come back
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You would have got long odds on it in the 1990s, but Peter Mandelson is now a conference darling. His hugely hammy performance delighted the hall and earned him a prolonged standing ovation.

Since he has returned to British politics, Mandelson has sought to deliver enough good lines to write his own story. He deliberately inverted Tony Blair’s quote about choosing the Labour party and rallied the audience by saying ‘If I can come back, we can come back.’ He flirted with conference before confirming that the car scrappage scheme would be extended before wrapping up with a string of attacks on the Tories and a declaration that “this election is up for grabs.”

But Mandelson’s speech actually showed what one of Labour’s biggest problems is: the lack of domestic policy message. Apart from the car scrappage scheme, there was little concrete policy in the speech. Instead, there was a lot of stuff about the role of the state but little translation of what that means in real terms: there are few positives to be sold on the doorstep.

Labour, though, has come up with its attack lines on the Tories. The messages are that Tory dogma gets in the way of them doing sensible things, that there are two faces to the Tory party and that Cameron and Osborne are too inexperienced. I’m sceptical of how effective these attacks will be. Polling does not suggest that Cameron comes across as being particularly ideological and it is hard to simultaneously claim that there is no substance to him and that he is an ideologue.

The Tories are, as they privately admit, vulnerable to the charge that while Cameron has changed, the party hasn’t. But Labour’s emphasis on attacking Cameron personally means they can’t try and separate Cameron from his party—the Tories made the same strategic mistake with Blair in the run up to 1997.

The final charge will undoubtedly have some effect. Cameron and Osborne are undeniably inexperienced, something that they tacitly acknowledge with their efforts to promote Hague and decision to bring back Ken Clarke. One of the reasons that Cameron is keen on a debate between party leaders, despite being ahead in the polls, is a belief that a head to head with Brown would give him a chance to disprove this charge.