Decca Aitkenhead's interview with Peter Mandelson reads in parts like a Hello! magazine profile. Or worse, like the effusion of a starstruck teenager. Of her few days spent trailing the Deputy Prime Minister (sorry, he's not officially DPM, is he? He's merely the unofficial prime minister) she writes:
Everywhere we went, before my eyes people fell in love with him. Trade union bosses, management consultants, random strangers on railway platforms – no one seemed to be immune. I've never seen anyone seduce so many people with such effortless allure – nor take such palpable pleasure in every conquest – and the intensity of his theatre is electrifying to behold.
Could somebody please pass the sickbag?
It gets worse. Aitkenhead mentions Mandy's skin, "dewy as if fresh from a spa facial", his "delicately co-ordinated cufflinks and tie" (what sort of spiv co-ordinates his cufflinks with his tie?), his feline grace and soft, measured voice. His "command of the dramatic pause would be hammy if it weren't always so exquisitely timed", she writes, giving as an example his ironic enunciation of a typical piece of New Labourish gobbledegook about being "in the post-intervention, pre-delivery stage". Translated into something resembling English, the statement means that the government has spent and borrowed vast sums of money and has nothing to show for it, so it's nice to know Mandy finds it so amusing. However, Aitkenhead seems willing, for the most part to take his lordship at his own estimation as "a kindly pussycat with strong views about what we need to do".
The analytical part of Aitkenhead's journalistic brain knows that she is being played. She writes perceptively of his "remarkable quality for appearing believable"; rather like Max Clifford, "he has a gift for sounding as if he's always telling the truth, even when you know it's his job not to". The contrast here is with Gordon Brown, who manages to sound evasive and dishonest even - or especially - when he's at his most sincere. Tony Blair, in his heyday, was among the world's most believable liars. But here Aitkenhead has a shock in store. Mandy is sleek, slim and suave but when Blair crosses her path (Mandelson, for reasons unexplained, is presenting him with a medal) the much-missed leader resembles
a bad actor playing Blair in the grip of some awful psychiatric meltdown. He really does look quite mad, with his face all over the place – a grotesque dance of eyebrows and teeth, manically gurning away, every feature in permanent motion – beside which Mandelson looks like a vision of poised sophistication.
But Decca, Blair has always looked like that. It's just that people didn't used to notice.
The one off-note comes at the beginning, when Mandelson's aides attempt to quieten down a woman on a train shouting into her mobile phone. Despite being the person most upset by the incident, he remains studiously aloof. Reduced to tears, the woman eventually confronts him. "And Mandelson just gets to his feet, raises his eyes to the heavens, and calmly walks away." This, however, was a rare glimpse of the old Prince of Darkness (and what was he supposed to have done to the selfish woman? Apologised?). He wants to let people know that he has mellowed - "I've learned from experience that you can defeat people without killing them" - and Aitkenhead is happy to serve as his instrument.
Some interesting things emerge, however, above all that Mandelson is still obsessed with the struggles of the 1980s, which he compares with the Wild West and when his reputation for political brutalism was forged. "Interestingly, he also says that, excluding his present position, his favourite ever job was as Labour's campaign director back then". Interesting indeed, but not perhaps wholly surprising. In those days, Mandelson was for Neil Kinnock a combination of what Alastair Campbell was for Tony Blair and what Damian MacBride, until recently, was for Gordon Brown. Only now has he recaptured, and surpassed, the power he then had in the Labour Party - except that the Labour Party is now the government, whereas then it was stuck in the doldrums of opposition. Whence, of course, it is headed once again.
There's also this explanation of why he feels more comfortable in government than he did during the early Blair years:
Older figures in government used to fear that I was endlessly plotting their downfall, or excluding them from the team, but the circumstances are completely different now. I take huge pride in the younger members of cabinet, who knew me in the 90s and associated me with winning. They've benefited from my support and advice, and they don't feel the suspicion towards me. They've wanted to work with me. Appreciated my age and experience. And my – my sense of fun.
He sounds like a football manager, doesn't he? - picking the team and then cheering them on from the touchline while they do their stuff on the pitch. The trouble is, the team aren't scoring any goals. A football manager in that situation would have been sacked by now; instead he has put his strip on and insists on taking all the penalties.
Decca is "not sure I've ever interviewed anyone who appears to be having more fun than Mandelson; travelling with him is more like joining a celebrity entourage than a political walkabout". Without the drugs and the groupies, though, presumably. She makes him sound like Obama. Last year's Obama, that is. He even manages - to an aide's chagrin - to crack a joke about his mortgages. I wonder, though, in the midst of a recession and with a government in chaos, if it's really appropriate for the man generally acknowledged to be in charge ought to be having "fun". Should he not be grey, drawn, focussed, weighed down by the intractability of it all? Is Mandelson's "fun" not the insouciance of Marie Antoinette?
Not at all. Marie Antoinette was in denial; she had retreated to an exquisite fantasy world of shepherdesses and cream teas. Mandelson knows what's going on, but is, to adopt a phrase he once used in different circumstances, intensely relaxed about it. It's the state of grace reached yesterday by England's tail-enders, who knew that the Headingly match was effectively over and that incontrovertible consciousness of impending doom freed them to actually play some cricket. Mandy is Prince Prospero, throwing a really good party while waiting for the Red Death to arrive. And although he claims to have pride as his young protegés show themselves incapable of carrying a ministerial box without dropping it, what he is displaying is in fact the indulgence of a fond parent who has come to terms with the likelihood that his child won't amount to anything.
Mandelson is a big fish, now, indisputably, but the pond is evaporating. His mastery of the Labour government, frightening to behold, is merely a consequence of the chaos that surrounds him. So is the speculation - driven by wishful thinking, even desperation - that he may return from the Lords to save the party in its hour of need. Various unlikely things have to happen - constitutional changes that would allow him to unlord himself have to be rushed through, a safe seat has to be found, Labour members would have to vote for him - for him to be installed as leader. It's wildly improbable, and he knows it. But despite his protestations about the Westminster lobby ("They don't actually understand politics, they only understand who's up and who's down") he's plainly loving the suggestion. The speculation "threatens to challenge the very core of his extraordinary power", thinks Aitkenhead, on the grounds that other cabinet ministers will now see him as a rival. But she's wrong. It is the very core of his "extraordinary power". This new Mandelson - waspish, faux-statesmanlike and effortlessly in control, playing politicians and media alike like a virtuoso handed a pristine Stradivarius - is as much an artifice as the dark-dwelling poison-dripper of fifteen years ago. And we've seen him before. At least, anyone who watched political drama in the early Nineties has seen him before. He has turned into Francis Urqhart: a man who did indeed finesse his way to the prime ministership, but only in fiction.