The other day, Danny Finkelstein asked if Peter Mandelson has "given up". He was reflecting upon Mandelson's wistful declaration that his career "has not been as successful as I wished. You have certain goals and I never acheived them. That's a disappointment for me." Danny professed himself astonished by this, arguing that by any measure Mandelson has enjoyed a "stellar" career:
Not only has he held really dizzyingly high office, but he has been massively influential on two Prime Ministers. He changed the Labour Party profoundly. And in the great political dispute of his life, his antagonist was forced to surrender humiliatingly.
How could he possibly be disappointed?
Mandelson was the back-room fixer and strategist who simultaneously revelled in his role as the manipulator of image and "narrative" and craved the responsibility of a "real" job in government. On the one hand he knew the importance of presentation and story; on the other he could see that these ought to be means to an end, not an end in itself. In other words, it wasn't enough. Mandelson was the producer who wanted to play the Dane himself. Some part of him must have been crushed by Blair's decision to appoint him Minister without Portfolio in his first cabinet. Again, being influential wasn't the same as being respectable or proving that he could survive without the Prime Minister's support and patronage. Having been the first of the modernisers, Mandelson found himself eclipsed.
Blair's misgivings were no entirely unfounded, since Mandelson's first resignation from cabinet stemmed from an entirely avoidable spot of foolishness; that his second resignation paid tribute to the old saw about history repeating itself as farce must have added to Mandelson's sense that while he could be led to water he wouldn't be allowed to drink. And the irony, of course, is that Mandelson was a good Northern Ireland Secretary and much, much better than the over-praised and lightweight Mo Mowlam.
So yes, Mandelson's disappointments must seem silly to many outsiders, but that doesn't mean there isn't some substance to them too. Government must, in some sense, have proved a frustrating disappointment to him. Despite the victories, despite his closeness to Blair he never quite achieved the respectability outsiders often crave. And there's irony there too: Mandelson had more Labour in his marrow than Blair, yet the party never quite grew to love him until, perhaps, the moment of his third return by which time it was too late anyway.
And yet there's something about Mandelson that makes me think he'll be his generation's Tony Benn. He's well on the way to becoming a Grand Old Man of British politics - the type who will appear on Question Time and whose candour and wit and sense of irony may surprise many of those who hated him for so long. That is, Peter Mandelson may, against all expectations, become a National Treasure. That may not make up for never becoming Foreign Secretary but it's not nothing either. And stranger things have happened...