Magazine article The Spectator

What Will Happen to Peter?

Magazine article The Spectator

What Will Happen to Peter?

Article excerpt

`THEN, at mid-morning, almost everybody in the war-room at Millbank began to collect the green cards which would admit them to Downing Street for the "spontaneous" demonstration of party workers awaiting the Blairs as they arrived triumphantly at No. 10. Mandelson, back in his blue chair at the central desk, did not stir. Where could he go? He could hardly . . . show his well-known face among the celebratory crowd in Downing Street. He did not yet have a department to go to. He watched the extraordinary moments as they unfolded on television in an empty, silent room strewn with paper and used coffee cups, deflated, solitary - and suddenly wiped out with exhaustion.'

Isn't that brilliantly evocative? Doesn't it perfectly capture the nature of the Hendon County boy's relationship with Blair? Mandelson as 'L'Etranger', as Callan - for that matter as 'Lonely' in Callan, as Sydney Carton, as Gabriel Oak, as every halfappreciated adviser and unrequited lover in history; clasped for so long to the centre of events, then released in an instant when events move beyond. But doesn't it also remind you of Tennyson's Ulysses:

Though much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven: that which we are, we are:

Donald Macintyre, from whose admirable new life of Mandelson the first passage is taken, uses detail to advantage: the green cards, the blue chair at the central desk, the silent room strewn with paper and used coffee cups. My own memories come flooding back. I was working for New Labour in Millbank at the time and I remember accepting a `green ticket' in spite of not being a natural flag-waver. A few minutes later I gave it away to Andrew Hood, Robin Cook's special adviser. The war-room was indeed quiet. I watched the new Prime Minister's transfiguration on the various television screens, still dazed. The phone kept ringing. Eventually, at lunchtime, I made a list of all the media bids I had taken that morning, put them on the desk of Dan Clifton, the broadcasting officer, and walked out into the sunlight, `deflated, solitary', and never to return.

I mention all this and it is why Macintyre's account really leapt off the page for me - because Peter Mandelson was not there. Macintyre goes into great detail about a specific time and place. Sarah Hunter, ever-present in Millbank during the election, corroborates the story on the accompanying Channel 4 television programme. Another stanza of the Mandelson saga, in which his deep sense of alienation is affirmed, is inked into place. Yet I know for certain that it is not true.

The thought-process, at such times, of the New Labour Kremlinologist is as follows: `Who has invented this story?' `Must be Mandelson.' `Why would he do such a thing?' `Because he wants the world to believe that he is Sydney Carton.' `What wider truths does this tiny tale illustrate?' `For modern politicians, there is no such thing as truth, only reportage.' `What dangling ends remain untied?' `The question of what he was really doing that morning.'

The actual history of events, I have now ascertained, contradicts Macintyre's account only in the tiniest detail. Mandelson was in Millbank, watching television on his own. He just wasn't in the war-room. He shut himself away in a small viewing room at the side of the main area, next to Gordon Brown's office. He watched the triumphal accession to power on a sofa, not on his `blue chair at his central desk'.

On this occasion, the difference between truth and fiction was negligible, and completely irrelevant. It rests on a minute imprecision - not even an inaccuracy - in a book which is generally notable for its wealth of fine detail and diligent sourcing. My point in raising it is that, had I not happened to have been there personally at that time, this miniature myth would have become true. The nature of modern political campaigning, of spin, is such that the short history of New Labour contains a thousand similar tiny lies, and some which are not so small. …

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