I can see him now, pale and interesting, wandering round the Museum of Asiatic Art in Paris. Having given a speech in Versailles on the Friday, Peter Mandelson is absorbing some exotic culture on the Saturday. Back home, a crisis may loom, but Peter is cocooned in a sumptuous gallery, at the heart of Gay Paree, handling the headache with minimalist technocratic style, dictating a comment as he takes in the exhibitions.
A few days later, at a lunchtime press call outside Downing Street, Mandelson resigned. Immaculately suited, hair straying winsomely in the breeze, he spoke of returning to a more “normal life”, and – in pure Noel Coward tones – escaping from “this horrible drama”. With a bit more self-restraint, it could all have been over with a minimum of fuss; but Mandelson’s decision to fight the injustice (as he sees it) of his resignation turned his departure into a drama.
The furore has provided a fascinating insight into two distinct ways of acting politically. Mandelson turned in an exemplary performance in the queeny style of political behaviour; this was offset by the macho politics exemplified by Alastair Campbell. The political divide – queeny v macho – proves true not only of this duelling duo, but also of other members of the Cabinet and shadow cabinet.
The feline modus operandi of a Mandelson is more than just a matter of style. Policies themselves take on a personal aspect. Northern Ireland and the Dome become extensions of the ego; and if things go wrong, you take it very personally indeed. How tempting, therefore, to indulge in a little clandestine activity to put right the slight. Saving your own skin becomes paramount – and hang the party.
Last time round, the party featured more in Mandy’s resignation. As he wrote to his friend Tony, he was a “loyal Labour man” who was not prepared to watch “the party and the government suffer”. Tony Blair showed a glimpse of his own queeny streak when he wrote back: “You will know better than anyone else the feelings with which I write to you.” The two politicians’ closeness seemed incestuous and downright unprofessional – as did their modi operandii when it came to other colleagues. With Tony and Peter both touchy and quick to take offence, friends and cronies come and go. Ken and Barbara Follett were flavour of the month one moment and out in the cold the next; Geoffrey Robinson was a favourite and then he was banned; and even their millionaire hangers-on, such as Bernie Ecclestone and Robert Bourne, must put up with a revolving-door approach to who’s in and who’s out.
Tony Blair’s emotional purple tone – very much in evidence during the war in Kosovo and when he led the nation in mourning Princess Diana’s death – is a distinguishing characteristic of the queeny politician. It can play beautifully in some instances and to some audiences – but risks becoming a cloying oratorical device that has the Women’s Institute slow-clapping you into a humiliating retreat.
Contrast this with the macho wing of the Labour Party. Alastair Campbell takes us back to an older, more manly (as Ken Follett would say) age of politicking. The six-foot-something, square-jawed spokesman – Sean Bean with a pager – has grit written all over him. He doesn’t mince his words and famously handles the press with the brutality of a bully-boy. His are the Rottweiler’s tactics to Mandy’s feline skills: he won’t let any hack or editor, no matter what their political persuasion, get away with upsetting the leader or the party. Any hint of trouble and he’s on the spot doing the job of a political fireman: had he been in Peter’s shoes at the outset of the Mandelson melodrama, he would have jumped on a plane to come home and face the music, not stayed in Paris among the potted palms and musty odours of some Asian museum.
Gordon Brown is equally macho in running the economy. No room for ego trips here – indeed, the Iron Chancellor actually reduced his influence by handing over powers to set interest rates to the Bank of England. Should foes prick his vanity with cruel attacks – remember when his shadow, Michael Portillo, made a reference to his blind eye?- there are no prima donna flounces . . . but you just know the offence has been recorded and the offender will be dealt with in an appropriate and wholly professional manner. The Chancellor’s tight-fisted prudence when it comes to doling out the departmental money is the opposite of queeny, self-indulgent splurges. And despite his recent marriage, Brown carefully presents a dour image which comes mercifully free of the emotional baggage that colours every move and statement of the queeny politician.
The struggle between Queen and Macho goes on in the Tory party as well. Michael Portillo once epitomised sophisticated machismo, with his “lips of an assassin and the hair of a tyrant”. He was a staunch Thatcherite and free-marketeer. Indeed, he liked to tell everyone about his Horatio-on-the-bridge stance outside Mrs Thatcher’s office on the night when Tory MPs queued up to tell the Iron Lady to go. He was going to knock down Peter Morrison, Margaret Thatcher’s private secretary, if Morrison didn’t allow him in to see her. These days, though, Portillo has the vapours whenever he thinks William Hague takes too robust a line on drugs, divorce or Clause 28.
Hague, by contrast, doesn’t agonise over hard-hitting policies and has earned a reputation as a mean machine on the Commons floor. He has good macho credentials: sexy wife, judo, the “well-hard” haircut so popular with footballers. Moreover, a sensitive soul could surely not have coped with the levels of abuse that he has endured.
No government – or shadow cabinet – can accommodate at its heart both queeny and macho types. Something’s got to give – and someone’s got to go.