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23 April 2001

The perils of Peter

What lies behind Mandelson's sudden and vigorous advocacy of home rule for the north-east? Peter Dun

By Peter Dunn

Peter Mandelson, the accident-prone architect of new Labour, has got himself into another scrape, this time in Hartlepool, his seaside constituency in the north-east. This scrape culminated, a few days ago, with Mandelson crossing the road outside his home in Hutton Avenue and delivering a shrill, finger-wagging lecture to two of his neighbours, Kath Leslie, a schoolteacher, and Father Tony Hogarth, a Catholic priest.

The MP was in a rage because Kath Leslie’s husband, Steve, a director of a building company run by Gus Robinson, the Tories’ general election candidate, had written a letter to the Hartlepool Mail. In it, Steve Leslie poked fun at the ex-minister’s security arrangements, a “circus” of traffic cones, dog vans, armed goons and men in white overalls waking the street at cockcrow. When the story was picked up and run at great length in the London papers, something in Mandelson snapped.

“At least the man with the machine-gun stayed back at Peter’s gate,” Kath Leslie told me. “Steve was in the house, but Peter didn’t think to confront him. He drove up with his escort and must have thought: ‘I’ll collar the weak one’, though I can defend myself. He said: ‘If you’ve got a complaint, couldn’t you cross the road and knock on my door?’ And I said: ‘Not with a man with a machine-gun at the gate. No thank you.’

“Every time I tried to say something, he wagged his finger at me and said: ‘Let me finish. Let me finish.'”

Father Hogarth said: “With the chivalry of the English knighthood tradition, I tried to intervene, but he told me it was none of my business. This is a quiet street with retirement homes and a hospice near his house. I live here caring for my mother, who’s in her eighties.

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“He’s not here much in Hartlepool. I think that’s a well-known fact. Then you’ll see him arrive, three or four cars in a convoy moving fairly quickly. When he came over to Mrs Leslie, I was a little frightened to be suddenly involved in something that was not of my making. Then I was really angry, because I’m not used to being spoken to in that fashion. One thing I noticed: never once was there any eye contact from him. I noticed that particularly before he stormed back to his house.”

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Gus Robinson denies that he and his fellow director connived over the letter to the local paper. Mandelson’s agent, Steve Wallace, has said the Leslies ought to be grateful that the security around Mandelson also protects their home from being blown up.

Hartlepool might revel in the slanging match, but it could hardly have come at a worse time for its hapless MP. A standing local joke is that, so rare are his visits, his title stands for Missing Person. He is seen as a haughty, rather Draculean figure more concerned about his next Cabinet job or his travails on the London property market than the desperate poverty of his constituency, where he has a majority of more than 17,000.

But Mandelson is trying to relaunch himself as new Labour’s spokesman for the poor. And he has a new concept: home rule for the north-east.

It could be a long haul in a community that has become cynical about the government’s neglect. A year ago (see NS, 25 September 2000), along with six other Cabinet ministers with comfortable north-east seats (including Tony Blair), he ignored an impassioned plea from Hartlepool’s Enterprise Agency to recognise the stark inequalities of the north-south divide.

The chronology of his media briefings in recent weeks, however, shows that the master has lost none of his ability to spin his way out of trouble.

12 March The Guardian is briefed that “Mr Mandelson, who has been tipped to speak out on Downing Street’s behalf on such issues as Europe, has added the regions to his election agenda”. There is a gratifying headline: “Mandelson muscles in on debate over north-south divide”.

21 March I receive a handwritten note from Mandelson expressing interest in my own scheme for a new Ministry of Information Technology in the region (see NS, 25 December 2000). He asks for more details. I send him an outline proposal. A few days later, his office rings to ask if I am likely to write for papers other than the NS during the election. I say I am not.

30 March The Northern Echo splashes (as an “exclusive”) on a speech Mandelson is to give at Hartlepool College of Further Education that day, with the headline “Labour to give north vote on devolution”. The speech (of which I have also received an advance copy) is a masterpiece of well-crafted obfuscation. In a nutshell, it says the government’s record in the regions has been brilliant, then concedes that it has failed. Then it says Mandelson has had a change of heart about regional government and is now in favour of it, provided it gets a mandate in a referendum.

The Echo quotes the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, as refusing to be drawn “on how far Labour would go to create a North-East parliament”. This lends credence to rumours that only the Prime Minister has been privy to the vote-winning strategy.

In the next day’s issue, the Echo‘s leader page extols Mandelson’s “vision for the north-east”.

Mandelson delivers his speech, in a room borrowed by his agent, before a selected audience of local dignitaries. Gus Robinson is not invited, but gets a tip-off from a Tory councillor and insinuates himself into the audience. In a brief session for questions (one of them about foot-and-mouth), he politely raises his hand. Mandelson ignores him. Robinson, nettled by this, prepares his own press release, which says: “Once again, the Former Minister displayed his true indifference to the People of Hartlepool and tried to use them as a springboard to National Prominence.”

2 April A straw poll of leading academics in the region shows a cautious though positive response to Mandelson’s conversion to devolution. “Conversion to the cause is better than no conversion,” says Professor Andy Gillespie, executive director of urban and regional development studies at Newcastle University. “One could put all sorts of interpretations on it, but it’s very encouraging that he’s come out so formally in favour. One hopes he’s got the Prime Minister’s ear to move along such lines.”

3 April I e-mail a list of questions to Mandelson’s office in London, asking him if the proposal will be included in Labour’s election manifesto (as the Echo headline had suggested, but as Mandelson’s speech had not itself confirmed) and whether it is true that Tony Blair will visit Hartlepool during the campaign to endorse a regional parliament.

I also ask him if he plans to install himself as First Minister of the new regional chamber, given that he has told Hartlepool he no longer wants a post in Cabinet at Westminster. Alas, no reply.

In Hutton Avenue, the cones and guns and bulletproof car have gone, for now. Somewhere out there, the minister for national prominence is biding his time.