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:
Quite easily! Mandelson’s role in the development of New Labour and the party’s return to power will be recognised by historians, but clearly overshadowed by the attention paid to Brown and Blair and their relationship. If theirs was a crowded marriage, Peter was the odd man out and, as he must know himself, the one who was dispensable. There may be an element of self-pity in Mandelson’s assessment of his career, but there’s some merit to it as well.
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.