Mandelson: can he learn to be boring?

Since the election, Peter Mandelson has metamorphosed from a "person in the dark" to the most photographed and talked-about minister in the cabinet. The light shines upon him with the dazzling intensity reserved usually for pop stars and the biggest names in sport. Like Posh Spice and David Beckham, he is rarely off the front pages. Uniquely, an anonymous "Labour Party source" has become a ministerial celebrity.

In other words, Mandelson is in danger of becoming the victim of a new myth about himself. The pre-election myth is familiar. Many in the media and in politics viewed him as the possessor of near-mystical gifts: intoxicated journalists wrote whatever he told them to; awkward stories disappeared when he clicked his fingers; unpopular policies would become vote-winning measures after he had applied his Midas touch. As with all stereotypes, there was some truth in the image. But the reality was much more complicated. He could be mischievous, devious, cunning, funny, strategically astute, smart at reading the rhythms of news stories, intimidating and bullying while remaining deeply sensitive to similar behaviour towards himself.

But much of what he achieved during the gruelling years in opposition could be put down to more mundane qualities, such as the capacity to work long hours and administer effectively. Before the election, when I asked a Tony Blair aide to explain the relationship between leader and theoretical junior, he replied: "Peter is always available to advise Tony, late at night, early in the morning. He works damned hard."

What is more, Mandelson would often attempt to cast his spells only to find that they didn't work. As he himself once asked, only half-jokingly, in a speech: "If I have all these powers over the media, why do I suffer from such a bad media image myself?" His struggle to get Labour a decent showing in the press began in the mid-1980s, and only bore ripe fruit as the last election approached.

The post-election stereotype is equally misleading. Late-night parties hosted by Camilla Parker Bowles, or reports of trips to Rio and the row over his "outing", give the impression of a frivolous, edgy socialite. But this week, such an uncomplicated, flamboyant politician, always after the front-page headline and doting editorial, would have opted for the grand gesture on the Post Office, accompanied by a full orchestra: "Ladies and gentlemen, I announce the privatisation of this outdated institution." How tempting it must have been, especially as Mandelson, and indeed Blair, believe that the Post Office would function more effectively in the private sector.

Instead, Mandelson has shown that he can adapt to more down-to-earth realities. Privatisation was not promised or hinted at in the party's manifesto. It would have required legislation and, with the government already struggling to accommodate a Food Standards Bill, for example, no slot is available in the foreseeable future.

The political storm would, in any case, have delayed the chance to make much-needed changes. Rightly, Mandelson recognised that the Post Office needs to be more flexible now, rather than left to linger ineffectively until the right political moment arrives for privatisation. By allowing it to borrow and to give up a smaller slice of profit to the Exchequer, Mandelson hopes to make the Post Office more flexible, while exposing the industry to greater competition.

Inevitably there is a whiff of soap opera in the air. While it is true that there is no love lost between Gordon Brown and Mandelson, differences would have emerged in this case, even if the two ministers were the closest of friends. The Treasury never reacts easily to proposals that will lose it revenue. On the Post Office, Brown argued for either the status quo or privatisation, both of which would have kept money flowing into the Treasury coffers. Under the Mandelson scheme, the Treasury loses money in the short term. The issue, Tony Benn will be reassured to learn, rather than the personalities caused the tensions.

So this week Mandelson, one of new Labour's pioneers, took on the Treasury to oppose privatisation, while earlier this year John Prescott, supposedly old Labour's representative on earth, gave the go-ahead for air traffic control to be taken into the private sector. When ministers confront specific policies, the stereotypes are a poor guide .

One of Mandelson's next tasks will be the launch of the Fairness at Work Bill, territory which he does not regard as being especially new Labour. While the unions are unlikely to be delighted with all the proposals, the CBI won't be cheering from the rooftops, either. The bill will be the result of tough talking and negotiations involving the pivotal DTI minister, Ian McCartney, and Mandelson himself. Again, the final outcome will not fit easily with the Mandelsonian caricature.

So which image of Mandelson will prevail in the end: the meticulous workhorse devising practical policies, or the celebrity, one of a small number who has replaced Princess Diana as media fodder? Probably he is not entirely sure himself whether the latest myth of political celebrity, seemingly fair game for the tabloids, will subsume him, making it impossible for him to be regarded as a heavyweight minister.

My hunch is that he will be saved by his in-tray. It is crammed full of arduous work, from the Millennium Dome to the future of Manchester United, to say nothing of Europe where, again, he has challenged tabloid prejudice. The next year will determine whether a flawed political personality is doomed to be the Posh Spice of the cabinet, or can succeed in being perceived simply and boringly as the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

This article first appeared in the 11 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Plato rules, OK?