Person of the Year 2010
Gordon Brown’s October 2008 decision to return his ‘nemesis’ Peter Mandelson to the Cabinet stunned British politics. But even then no one imagined the role ‘Mandy’ would play in securing Brown’s reign, or the grip on power he would establish.
At 10pm on 4/6/09, as the polls closed for the local and Euro elections, James Purnell became the latest and most significant minister to quit and call on Brown to go. According to reports, had Mandelson not been in No. 10 at the time and able to persuade key Cabinet Blairites to keep the faith, Brown might not have lasted the week.
Mandy’s reward came in the next day’s reshuffle which established him as the de facto deputy PM, and vindicated his much-mocked 2001 claim to be ‘a fighter not a quitter’. William Hague observed, ‘His title now adds up to, The Right Hon. the Baron Mandelson of Foy in the county of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the county of Durham, First Secretary of State, Lord President of the Privy Council and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation, and Skills. It would be no surprise to wake up in the morning and find that he had become an archbishop.’
Mandelson was born in 1953. A youthful dalliance with Communism ended at St Catherine’s, Oxford, and in 1979 he was elected to Lambeth’s Labour council. In 1982, he became a TV producer, only to return to politics in 1985 as Neil Kinnock’s director of communications. In 1992, he became MP for Hartlepool and formed a triumvirate with two young MPs – Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.
The process by which Blair bested Brown after John Smith’s death in 1994 lies at the ineffable core of New Labour. Yet Mandelson’s rejection of Gordon in favour of Tony led to the former’s enmity and the latter’s loyalty – evinced in Mandelson’s appointment as Minister Without Portfolio (in charge of the Millennium Dome) in Blair’s first Cabinet. In July 1998, Mandelson was made Trade Secretary, but quit in December when it emerged he had taken a £373,000 home loan from a colleague.
In October 1999, he returned to the Cabinet as N Ireland Sec., but in January 2001 resigned over (denied) claims that he had intervened in a passport application by one of the Hinduja brothers. (He was later cleared of any impropriety.) In 2004, Blair backed Mandelson to become EU Trade Cmsnr – a post he held until his rapprochement with Brown.
In 2009, Mandelson parlayed his political re-rehabilitation into real power. He currently attends 35 of the 43 Cabinet committees (as Blair’s deputy, John Prescott attended 17), and by taking the fight to the Tories he has injected confidence into Brown’s lacklustre reign. In an August Guardian profile, Mandelson exuded un-abashed glee at being back in the game, protesting that New Labour’s ‘hit man’ was now ‘a kindly pussycat’
Summer headlines mooting ‘PM for PM’ were patently whimsical, but they were encouraged by a sense that anything is possible with ‘the prince of darkness’ – who remains one of the most compelling figures of the Blairite age and, in the Economist’s words, ‘the Great High Giver of Good Copy’.
If, as seems likely, Brown loses the 2010 general election, or quits before, then Mandelson will have been New Labour’s midwife and mortician – and, against all the odds, will himself have survived.