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29 January 2001

The fall of Mandelson

Within Labour, Blair will be alone in mourning the end of his star-struck Machiavellian friend

By Jackie Ashley

Peter Mandelson fell out with John Prescott and survived. He fell out big time with Gordon Brown and survived. But this time, he fell out with Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister’s press secretary. It tells you something about the power game within this government that it was after Mandelson appeared to contradict Campbell’s version of events that he had to go. Mandelson’s relationship with Campbell has always been volatile. Once such good friends that Mandelson used to accompany the Campbell family on holiday, they have also been through long periods of not speaking. This time, Campbell became infuriated that the differing versions over what had happened in the “cash for passports” affair was jeopardising his relationship with the lobby journalists he sees twice a day. He could not afford to be seen to be lying. Blair could not sacrifice Campbell, the one person he needs even more than Mandelson in the run-up to an election.

Blair and Campbell’s main concern this past week – an important one in the pre-election grid of the Labour planners – had been a major attack on the Tory spending plans. But the Mandelson story overshadowed that, just as, a few weeks ago, the pursuit of the minister over the birthday party thrown for him by Robert Bourne, the prospective buyer of the Dome, distracted attention from Labour’s real message.

But it’s more than just Campbell, more than just blighting the message. Mandelson’s ruthless determination to get to the top has led him to make more enemies in a couple of years than most people make in a lifetime. A strange new twist to Mandelson’s career that the New Statesman has just discovered reveals just how Machiavellian he has been in his drive for power.

Mandelson, it has emerged, spent a good part of his Christmas and New Year break in Syria. Now why would he want to do that? It may be that he wanted to get as far away from the Dome as possible, in order to spare himself memories of that disastrous New Year’s eve a year ago. Or it may be that he wanted to visit Syria’s fine Roman ruins, which attract tourists from all over the region.

Yet with Mandelson, everything is done for a purpose. His fellow ministers were quick to assume the worst. Although the Northern Ireland office refused to confirm that the visit had taken place, other sources have told the New Statesman that not only did Mandelson go to Syria, but when there he had a long meeting with Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, who has been in office since his father died last July. Until elected president in a referendum, Bashar trained as an eye surgeon in London, and he recently married a Syrian woman who grew up in Britain. Perhaps one or other of them, like the Hinduja brothers, had met Mandelson in London.

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Mandelson’s trip was timed to coincide with Bill Clinton’s bid to salvage a Middle East peace deal in the dying days of his presidency. No wonder other ministers were gnashing their teeth at what they saw as yet another bid to glide smoothly into the Foreign Office after the next election.

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There’s no suggestion of wrongdoing, and the trip most likely had a perfectly straightforward explanation – though the Foreign Office was clearly furious to have learnt about it “retrospectively”. But like so much that Mandelson gets involved with, you don’t feel you are getting the facts straight. For once, the Tories have it right: the word “slippery” seems highly appropriate for this arch plotter.

The thing about Mandelson is that you either love him or you hate him. His friends are loyal to a degree, overlooking his little foibles and insisting that Labour’s victory at the last election – in fact, Labour’s transformation from the dark days of the mid-1980s – is almost entirely down to Mandelson’s genius. Those ministers who are particularly close to No 10 wax lyrical about his “feel” for timing and nuance, his super-sensitive political antennae and his 100 per cent commitment to the Prime Minister.

Certainly, there can be no doubting his influence on Blair, which stretches back over the years. When Blair and Brown were rising stars in opposition, the pair of them would quite openly consult Mandelson by phone before going ahead with a television interview. Brown is now estranged, but those who have spent time with Mandelson since Labour has been in power confirm that he has continued the regular phone calls with Blair, and has made little effort to disguise who was speaking to from whoever was in the room at the time.

Yet while he remains undeniably close to the Prime Minister, Mandelson has failed to win over the rest of the team. Tony Blair never did achieve his stated aim of getting the party to love Peter: the more Peter rose in government, the more the party loathed him. Who else could have inspired a group of disillusioned left-wingers to form a dining club, wickedly invite Peter Mandelson to be their president, where they regularly toasted the absent minister, while gorging on unkind stories about him? I imagine the Old Testament Prophets, as they are known, will very soon be holding a special dinner to celebrate their arch-foe’s departure: that’s how much he could be hated.

It’s difficult to understand quite why Mandelson engenders such strong feelings – until you meet him, that is. He has the capacity to charm like no other. Friends and (useful) acquaintances never fail to praise his quick wit and warmth. But equally, he can display an icy disdain, which can freeze the cup of tea in your hand – or, in his case, the cup of hot water with a slice of lemon. He has been the great emotional manipulator of British politics. You never quite know, when he walks into a room, which man you’re going to get, Nice Peter or Nasty Peter.

Whichever of those two it was, you always got Posh Peter – and here we have the most cogent reason for the inability of Peter and the party to get on. The latest sign of his “cool” behaviour has been to arrive for dinner bearing a couple of mangoes, rather than the traditional chocolates or bottle of wine. He is impossibly suave, struck by stars, money and London glamour – and by Irish posh during his tenure as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He lives a life – even now that he’s been forced to sell his smart house in Notting Hill – that’s far removed from the daily, mundane existence of Labour supporters.

Few of the Cabinet’s big hitters, apart from Tony Blair himself, will mourn his departure. Mandelson had undoubtedly been in line for a “bigger” job after the next election. David Blunkett, Jack Straw, Robin Cook will all be relieved that there’s one less competitor for the post-election spoils.

However bright his ambition burned, Peter Mandelson has found out the hard way that London contains many spots hotter than those of any Syrian desert.