Magazine article The Spectator

The Mandarin's Tale

Magazine article The Spectator

The Mandarin's Tale

Article excerpt

IF there is any reason for sympathy with Peter Mandelson, it might be this. The Hammond report on his dealings with the billionaire Hinduja brothers may next week salvage something of his political reputation. But he will lose something equally cherished. The report will demolish his convenient self-delusion that Whitehall ganged up with his rivals to undermine him in his hour of greatest vulnerability. Far better to be left shouting, like the Carry On star, `Infamy infamy, they've all got it in for me', than to learn the desperate truth: that the man almost solely responsible for his sacking was his closest political confidant, his brother in arms against the Old Labour enemy, his friend and hero Tony Blair.

In a trivial sense prime ministers are always responsible for hiring and firing ministers. But Mandelson has been searching for a more complex explanation of why he went than that he simply alienated his patron. He appears to have persuaded himself that the Prime Minister was under great pressure from Sir Richard Wilson, Cabinet secretary and head of the home civil service, to sack him.

Authoritative accounts of how Mandelson saw the hours leading up to the departure almost always cite a supposedly tendentious dossier compiled by him. The senior mandarin is depicted, along with Derry Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, as a cold-hearted hanging judge, who concluded that Mandelson had committed a capital crime. In this version, Blair could be seen as almost blameless: he was simply the rubber-stamper.

Well, Wilson, I am told, is not at all happy about this portrayal of himself as the man who made blood-brothers turn on each other. `Richard is extremely pissed off at the implication that he recommended that Mandelson should resign,' said a close friend of his. `He feels Mandelson has cast the first stone, and therefore wants to set the record straight. The fact is he did not recommend that Mandelson had to go. The reverse is true. What he told the Prime Minister is that the evidence against Mandelson was not so grave as to require his resignation.'

Wilson has taken great pains to make this clear in the evidence he has submitted to Sir Anthony Hammond, the ex-Home Office lawyer and former Treasury solicitor who is heading the inquiry into the Hinduja affair. And, according to a senior Whitehall official, Wilson is confident that Hammond - who is known to his civil-service chums as 'Wally'-will accept his account.

Now to get on to the detail of all this: prime ministers routinely ask the advice of their Cabinet secretaries when their ministers are accused of impropriety. Wilson's predecessor, Lord Butler, seemed to spend almost all his working hours deciding whether this or that minister had disgraced his office.

Inevitably, therefore, Wilson was in the thick of things after 21 January when the Observer reported that the Northern Ireland Secretary had become involved in attempts by the Indian billionaire, Srichand Hinduja, to obtain a British passport.

A crucial question was whether there was any evidence linking Mandelson's help for Mr Hinduja to a 11 million contribution by the billionaire and his brother to the Faith Zone of the Millennium Dome. If there was any proof that Mandelson was doing him a favour in order to obtain financial advantage for the Greenwich bubble, Wilson would have unhesitatingly said that he had to go.

But on the evening of 23 January Wilson reviewed a file compiled on all this by the Department of Culture and concluded that Mandelson was in the clear. …

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