Lord Mandelson of Foy sticks his nose into the room in which I am waiting for him and sniffs the air theatrically. ‘This place smells,’ he declares. And this, it seems, is my invitation to follow him through to his office — for an interview and some light admonishment. He is cross with Charles Moore for revealing in this magazine the details of an extraordinary shooting party at the Rothschilds’ manor. The cast of characters included Cherie Blair, Lord Mandelson and Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the Libyan dictator. The noble lord is keen to set the record straight.
‘I never clapped eyes on Cherie Blair,’ he says, indignantly. ‘She was nowhere to be seen, unless she came afterwards.’ He lists other complaints: he was not dining at Waddesdon Manor but another building (he doesn’t specify). But he has no qualms about meeting Gaddafi. ‘He did appear over pudding and I did sit him down and talk to him about something.’ And is he an all-right chap?’
‘I don’t regard him as an all-right chap or a bad chap. I mean, how can you judge?’
What seems to annoy him most is the idea that he aimed a gun at a pheasant. ‘I’m not saying that these people don’t shoot. That’s what you do when you’re that sort of person, when you’ve got nothing else to do and you haven’t got two large red boxes of work to do. But I went to dinner on Friday and I went home and did my boxes, like a good boy.’
For some time now, Lord Mandelson has been a very good boy indeed. When he returned to government, it was said by unkind souls (including me) that he would be Gordon Brown’s executioner. Instead, the former Prince of Darkness has become (in his own words) a ‘prince of stability’, saving Mr Brown from political death after the June elections and enforcing peace between the bickering tribes of the Labour party ever since. His office in the old DTI building has the feel of the real governmental power-base.
Before him is a large black bowl, his prize for being The Spectator’s politician of the year — another accolade to follow his 34-word title. Some of his friends talk about how he has been transformed since reaching the top of a greasy pole which was put up especially for him. The Prime Minister is at his mercy, he has a ridiculous number of ministers reporting to him and he has outlasted all of his old enemies. As he reclines in his chair, talking laconically and with mock puzzlement now and again, he looks as if he is enjoying every minute of this power.
I ask him whom he rates on the Tory front bench. He looks at me as blankly as if I had asked him about the Icelandic government. ‘Gosh, I don’t know many of them,’ he says. ‘Who is the education guy?’ The idea that he has never heard of Michael Gove is laughable, but I play along and prompt him. ‘Ah, yes,’ he says. ‘He at least seems to be thinking as a reformer — at least he’s making an effort to think and to build on New Labour’s reforms. I don’t get any sense of that from the health guy...’ He pauses, trying to remember the name. Andrew Lansley, I say.
‘Yes. He just seems keen on running into the embrace of the nearest doctors’ association and health workers’ unions in order to promise them all a quiet life. Where are the ideas? You see the contrast with us in the 1990s is stark. When I was looking at Cameron first of all when he became leader, I was in Brussels and I looked from afar at a guy who seemed to have grabbed hold of the New Labour manual and was going to run with it. It petered out after about 15 months. The guy who was going to reshape, shake up, remodel the Conservative party and bring it kicking and screaming into the 21st century ran out of puff.’
Voters, he says, will ask what’s in it for them if they vote Tory. Less debt, I suggest. ‘And, in the meantime, tax cuts for the few.’ The dead few, I say: inheritance tax cuts are of little use to the millionaires who only qualify for the tax break by keeling over. ‘Well, married couples then. They’re not dead.’ Interestingly, they are being bundled together under the heading ‘the few’. You can smell a Labour party election strategy being brewed from this room. The election ‘is more open than some commentators currently believe’.
It cannot be open, I suggest, when voters are still being asked to choose four more years of the man who was his enemy for so long: Gordon Brown. He pauses. Mr Brown, he says, ‘took some tough and bold decisions when the crisis demanded it’. Set that against ‘a sunny David Cameron who presents a good figure — on a good day — on television. But when it comes down to it, you’re going to ask yourself: does this guy represent people like me?’ There is more than a whiff of a class attack here. And Tony Blair? Will he campaign? ‘I’m sure he’d be delighted to if he were asked.’
When asked what his plans are once that election is over, Lord Mandelson doesn’t miss a beat: ‘You mean which department I want to go to?’ Well, I say, what about when politics is over? William Hague talks about doing something different with his career before retiring, but Lord Mandelson will only talk about retirement if we are clear about the timeframe. ‘If you ask me where in 15 or 20 years’ time I’d like to be, it will be probably on a farm somewhere close to the land, getting up early in the morning.’
I’m not sure which scenario is harder to believe: that he could still be on the political stage in Christmas 2029 (he has, it’s true, cheated political death twice — but another two decades?); or that this billionaire-schmoozing cosmopolitan animal could really want to retire to a farm. He is addicted to the high life. (I asked if he preferred the Beatles to the Rolling Stones and he replied, ‘I enjoyed meeting Mick Jagger.’) But his mind is made up. ‘I want to be near land. I want to be able to grow my own food. Look after my own farm animals, worry about the weather and get the timing of my harvest right. Listen to Farming Today. If I could live in the countryside rather than London now, I’d do it like a shot. If I had an old English country garden that I could tend, I would love it. If I had farmland that I could cultivate and animals to look after, it would give me great enjoyment.’
By this time, his adviser — sitting on the chair next to us — is growing puce from his efforts not to laugh. Lord Mandelson continues. ‘I care about these things. I like properly grown food from organic soil. I don’t like processed and I don’t like packaged.’ But Lord Mandelson — tending animals? ‘I’m not so good with pigs. But I would love chickens because I like fresh eggs. If I could rustle together some sheep, I would be very happy, or even the odd cow.’ He says all of this with the straightest of faces.
‘But please don’t run away with the idea that I see this life around the corner. I don’t. It’s for a future life — or it’s for none at all. But you’re entitled to dream.’ I ask if he has more immediate dreams: like being Foreign Secretary, for example. ‘So I read in the newspapers.’ Is it true? ‘If I were made Foreign Secretary, I would be as happy as if I were put somewhere else to work on the economy. I feel that I have the enthusiasm to turn my hand to most things in government. Perhaps on the basis of what I’ve just said, I should transfer to Defra.’
He says he has never had a career p lan, perhaps just as well given the bunjee jumps of his own political fortunes. He runs ‘two or three times a week’, but has yet to be photographed, as the Prime Minister has been. He tries to maintain a health regime but ‘I find by three o’clock I’m so desperate for a chocolate bar that the will fades.’ Is that his only vice? ‘I’m pretty loyal. Therefore I don’t have any vices.’ And in what way is he loyal? ‘In how I conduct myself, in relation to other people. I’m a pretty loyal chap.’
And here is the remarkable thing. That after two years of acting like a human life-support machine to the Prime Minister who brought him back in from the cold, there is absolutely no evidence to the contrary.