Eddie Izzard told me Mandy, dressed in bondage, was in a dungeon at No 10

What do the glamorous, celebrity-loving Peter Mandelson and that butch bully Alastair Campbell have in common, apart from closeness to Tony Blair? Well, both enjoy playing their public personas to the hilt. Peter's speciality is coldly cutting people he has met, while Campbell loves the macho, chest-butting style of confrontation.

At the now infamous "night of a thousand luvvies" at No 10, Mandelson was pacing menacingly outside the reception. Seeing him prowling around at the top of the stairs, I muttered "Oh shit" under my breath and began composing a hello that was not too fawning, fearful or offhand. What came out was the usual blurted "Hi, Peter", to which I wittily added: "Do you think many will turn up, then?"

He gave me a look usually reserved for backbenchers and asked: "And you are?" The impulse to scrabble around in my handbag to prove I had an invitation was almost overwhelming. Anyway, he didn't wait for a reintroduction (he knew perfectly well who I was), but strode away to do whatever spin-deeds need doing late at night in Downing Street.

Even those who are more likely to impress Mandelson make nervous jokes about the "torturer of No 10". Standing by the windows at the glittering reception, the comedian Eddie Izzard and I surveyed the smoke-free, star-studded scene: Lenny Henry chatted to Charles Dance; and, by the fireplace, Blair stood shyly, clutching a wineglass, momentarily on his own.

Izzard is a multilingual Europhile. He is also Britain's most successful transvestite, surrealist comic, giving him the sexy street-cred that new Labour adores. But he smokes. At the party, we stood around mourning the lack of ashtrays. But when, in rebellion, I pulled out a cigarette, Izzard said: "No." He began describing a secret dungeon that existed below No 10. There, he assured me, a bondage-clad Mandelson tortured smokers and celebrity drunks who failed to carry out his evil plans for world domination. The PM's stare froze our raucous laughter.

Where media folk gossip and whisper about Mandy behind his back, they insult and wind up Campbell to his face. At the Labour Party conference in 1999, there was a feast of humiliating Campbell stories to enjoy. Piers Morgan, the editor of the Mirror, was having a field day. To be fair, everyone was - thanks to the actress Nicola Pagett and her sexual obsession with the spin-doctor she called The Stranger.

Morgan could hardly contain his glee, and stood rubbing his hands together as everyone in the room waited for Campbell to arrive. Diverting the week's news agenda away from Labour Party spin was just a happy by-product of the story - what the hacks wanted was a humiliated Campbell to appear with his tail firmly between his legs.

Suddenly, above the music, a buzz went around: "He's here!" All conversation stopped, and Campbell strode to the centre of the room. Then, with a dramatic gesture, he pulled a mobile phone from his jacket, holding his hand high in the air to silence the muttering: "Shhhh, you lot," he shouted. "It's Claudia Schiffer . . . " He spoke into the phone: "No, darling, don't do it . . . don't kill yourself; I'm just not worth it." He clicked the phone shut, and then immediately opened it again. Holding it in the air, he sighed: "Now it's Cindy . . . No, Cindy, I can't be with you. I'm in love with someone else; it'll never work out. I'm sorry."

He switched off his phone and walked off, leaving the journos crestfallen.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Laughing all the way to No 10?