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Mandelson is no kind of leader

Left alone in power, this obedient courtier would wither like a salted snail

The debate over the possibility of a Mandelson premiership remains little more than a Westminster parlour game but a number of figures are now openly touting the Business Secretary as an alternative Prime Minister.

Dr Peter Slowe, the newly-elected chairman of the Labour Finance and Industry group, was the first off the mark, arguing: "Mandelson is the only one with the clout, intellect and charisma who could realistically take on the Tories and win."

And the venerable William Rees-Mogg writes in the Times today:

"Lord Mandelson is the frontrunner; the worse the problems become, the stronger he will be. Like his grandfather, Herbert Morrison, who was the boss of London Labour politics for about 25 years, Peter Mandelson combines political skills with an entrepreneurial approach. His capacity for changing politics is like that of a major entrepreneur revolutionising an industry. It is hard to think of a political performance equal to Lord Mandelson's past 12 months. Many people go from hero to zero; Mandelson has gone from zero to hero. He appears to be the only Labour politician with the force of personality to change the bleak political weather."

Such pocket hagiographies conveniently ignore Mandelson's humiliating climbdown over the part-privatisation of Royal Mail and the public's stubborn refusal to embrace Westminster's prodigal son.

The technical obstacles to a Mandelson premiership may soon be removed through Jack Straw's amendment allowing life peers to relinquish their seats, but the political obstacles remain considerable.

Many of those who discuss the Labour leadership most vigorously continue to do so without reference to the party's electoral college, under which the affiliated trade unions hold a third of the votes. There has, to put it mildly, never been a pro-Mandelson faction in the TUC but his attempt to sell a minority stake in Royal Mail has ensured that any lone supporters will be lying low.

Yet more than this, the belief that Mandelson is well equipped to become Prime Minister represents a fundamental misreading of his life and career.

Mandelson was astute and self-critical enough to recognise early on that he was no kind of leader. Instead, he made it his mission, his raison d'être to serve those who were. His relationship with successive Labour leaders, from Kinnock to Blair and finally Brown, pays testament to this.

The reason why Brown is intensely relaxed about Mandelson's status as de facto deputy prime minister is that he more than most knows that what Mandelson craves is access and influence, not the chance to lead. There is no hidden agenda behind his fierce defence of Brown's leadership in yesterday's News of the World.

As the novelist Edward Docx wrote in his extensive profile of Mandelson for Prospect, "the default setting in Mandelson's hard drive has been to identify the most powerful person in prospect and then work exclusively, almost slavishly, for them -- often at the expense of all other relationships."

Mandelson's relentless focus on individuals means that he has failed to build the factional support that all leaders depend on.

The truth is that left alone in power with no master to serve, this obedient courtier would wither like a salted snail.