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6 August 2001

Mandelson’s latest make-over

There's a new Geordie lilt to the Sultan of Spin's vowels, observes Andy McSmith

By Andy McSmith

Rory Bremner has a new turn – his impression of Peter Mandelson trying to master a Geordie accent. I’m told it’s a killer.

Bremner has spotted what the press have failed to notice. Mandelson is turning Geordie. The signs have been there for weeks, if only we had been alert enough. Take, for example, a recent meeting of the trade union group of Labour MPs, dominated by former trade union officials with seats in the north. When John Monks, the TUC general secretary, was negotiating the restoration of trade union rights, the group backed him at every turn. The legislation was handled by Margaret Beckett, seen as the unions’ friend until she was replaced at the Department of Trade and Industry by Mandelson, who in turn was succeeded by Stephen Byers. According to Sarah Veale, a TUC researcher: “Mandelson was certainly regarded as the least friendly of the three to us.”

However, when Monks was back addressing the group earlier this month to gather support in the confrontation developing between the unions and government over the use of private firms to run public services, the group had a new supporter, sitting at the back, listening sympathetically – Brother Mandelson.

The north-east group of Labour MPs meets periodically to discuss issues of interest to its patch. The big names from the region – Tony Blair, Stephen Byers, Alan Milburn – are not normally there. But guess who made a surprise appearance at their first post-election meeting? Howay, it was wor Geordie Pete, mun!

When Mandelson made his dramatic announcement on election night that he was back in business, it was assumed he would revert to political outrider for new Labour, taking up such issues as the euro and pushing them further out than it would be safe for the Prime Minister to go. But, apart from one speech on the euro and a few in praise of the Northern Ireland police, his interests have been parochial.

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Mandelson’s first big post-election speech was delivered at Newcastle University. He warned that the legitimacy of the constitutional changes enacted by the Blair government would be open to question unless the English regions were offered devolved government. “It’s easy to see why, as Scottish and Welsh autonomy grows, parts of England feel ignored,” he said. “But hadaway and shite, mun, if those southern clarts in the second-term Labour government divn’t dee anything about regional devolution, it will leave the canny constitutional settlement enacted by new Labour dangerously unbalanced . . .” he added. Well, almost.

Regional devolution is within the remit of the newly reorganised Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, whose ministers trooped into the Commons on 3 July for their first round of questions from MPs, not knowing who would be there to call them to account. On a back bench lurked Mandelson, armed with what he called a “reasonable timetable” for having a north-east regional assembly in place in just three years. The minister, Nick Raynsford, could only agree that it was “perfectly reasonable”.

Downing Street’s plan for improving public services by bringing in private management threatens to cause the worst crisis in more than 20 years in the Labour Party’s relations with the big public sector trade unions. By 5 July, things had come to such a pass that Gordon Brown emerged from the Treasury to tell the annual conference of the Transport and General Workers’ Union that he was fully behind Blair.

On the same day, wor Pete was up north addressing a meeting at the Local Government Association conference. Here is part of what he said: “Politics is primarily about people, not structures. If the government is serious about transforming public service delivery, we need to do much more than use the private sector. People themselves should be seen as delivery partners, rather than as problems to be solved.”

A cynical interpretation of these almost off-message comments might be that Mandelson owes an immense debt to the GMB union, without whose help he would probably never have become MP for Hartlepool. But I think something deeper is happening. In that same speech, on 5 July, he hinted at the personal metamorphosis that is driving the transformation satirised by Bremner.

“My own belief in regional devolution emerged cautiously,” he said. “In the 1970s and 1980s, when my political convictions were being shaped, what stirred my emotions were problems that seemed more immediate and pressing: unemployment, family breakdown and the loss of self-respect that blighted communities . . . [but] if we are to achieve an irreversible shift in the distribution of opportunities from the few at the top to the many in our society, we must start by addressing how politics itself is conducted in Britain. A humbler, less presumptuous, more self-critical attitude is needed.”

Humble, unpresumptuous and self-critical are not adjectives that spring to mind when considering that election night speech: “It was said my political life was over . . . Well, they underestimated Hartlepool and they underestimated me, because I’m a fighter, not a quitter . . .”

And I am glad he is not a quitter. With his brilliant mind and foolish character, his cold-blooded self-control, his unpredictability and self-destructive opportunism, he is one of those rare characters who bring politics to life. Even regional devolution gets interesting when Mandelson pokes his nose into it. So, if the bonny lad wants to reinvent himself as the Voice of the Regions, I say why-aye.

The author is the Daily Telegraph‘s chief political correspondent

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