The curious case of Peter Mandelson, forgiven (again) for having done nothing wrong

So the prime minister has nominated Peter Mandelson to be Britain’s sole new Commissioner at the EU in Brussels, on the face of it an admirable choice: the man is an articulate and persuasive pro-European, never lacking in moral and political courage, generally acknowledged to be a talented administrator who performed excellently as a Cabinet minister at the Northern Ireland Office and the Department of Trade and Industry, and a skilful and effective politician with a reputation for manipulative deviousness which can only stand him in good stead in the Brussels piranha-tank. Yet the raising of Mandelson from the politically dead by his old friend and protégé, Tony Blair, has prompted predictably personal attacks on Mandelson of an almost unique ferocity from, mainly, his political ‘friends’ and colleagues in the Labour Party and in the liberal media. With friends like that, etc. ….

The media and Mandelson’s other critics have been free with their use of such terms as "disgracedâ€? and "discreditedâ€? as applied to him. If I were in his shoes, I’d sue the lot of them, in the expectation of securing damages on a scale comparable with an EU Commissioner’s expense account.

It’s worth recalling the circumstances of Mandelson’s two ministerial resignations.

The first arose from the disclosure that he had borrowed money to put towards buying a house from a brother MP and ministerial colleague[1], whose financial activities were at that time under investigation by Mandelson’s own department, although the investigation subsequently revealed no impropriety. Mandelson himself acknowledges that he had been imprudent in failing to inform his Permanent Secretary and the Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards of the loan. At the time there was loose talk in the press of Mandelson having failed to tell his building society of the loan when applying for his mortgage, with other innuendoes suggestive of improper, even fraudulent behaviour. It later transpired, too late to save Mandelson’s ministerial appointment, that no such impropriety had occurred. Nor was there anything intrinsically improper about the loan. With hindsight it became clear that the prime minister had over-reacted, and acted prematurely, in accepting Mandelson’s resignation over what was essentially a trivial and easily rectified omission. But Mandelson’s name acquired an indelible though undeserved scar and his enemies carved the first notch on their guns.

In March 2002 I wrote an account of the second resignation in an Ephem (available on my website). To save you the bother of looking it up, I quote it here:

"Peter Mandelson, a then Cabinet minister and close friend and adviser to Blair, [was] accused by the media of using his ministerial position to try to get a favourable decision on the passport applications of a pair of Asian brothers who were offering a financial contribution towards the Millennium Dome (for which, among other things, Mandelson had had ministerial responsibility). It rapidly became clear that there had been nothing remotely improper about the enquiry Mandelson had made, or caused to be made, about progress in processing the passport applications, and indeed even the Home Office junior minister to whose office the enquiry had been addressed, one O’Brien, confirmed that there had been nothing improper about it. The ensuing argument then revolved around the wholly insignificant question whether Mandelson had made a telephone call directly to O’Brien (as O’Brien claimed to remember him doing, although no record of such a call has ever been found) or whether it had been made on Mandelson’s instructions by his officials (as Mandelson believed, and as the few available documents seemed to confirm). The media became violently excited over this issue; the prime minister’s rapid response was to call in Mandelson and require his resignation, while publicly acknowledging that he had behaved with total propriety at all times. Another sacrifice to the ravening wolves of the British tabloids and their more staid but equally malicious broadsheet brothers!

"For unexplained reasons, Mandelson’s behaviour, although not the object of any accusations, was then subjected to an official enquiry by a not particularly eminent barrister who concluded that Mandelson had done nothing improper but had probably made the disputed telephone call to O’Brien even though he had clearly ‘forgotten’ having done so. Weirdly, this exoneration of Mandelson did him no good, since he had been made to resign before the enquiry rather than after, or in the light of, its outcome, an odd reversal of the usual procedure by which verdict generally precedes sentence, rather than the other way about.

"And there has been a curious postscript to this sorry chronicle. Mandelson recently found some official papers in a briefcase which he felt confirmed his recollection that he had not made the disputed telephone call to O’Brien. The not particularly eminent barrister was reinstalled to hold a further enquiry, but after scrutinising the new evidence concluded that he had no reason to change his mind about the probability, on balance, that Mandelson had made the telephone call, although he repeated that there had been nothing improper about it. Thus Mandelson, acquitted by the first enquiry but already sacked and not later reinstated, appealed against his own acquittal only to have it reaffirmed. But he still hasn’t been restored to government office: not, obviously, because had done anything wrong, but because he had made powerful enemies in the Cabinet, the Labour Party, Number 10 and the media, and Mr Blair has not been willing to face them down or to stand by his old friend and mentor. It will be interesting to see who is the next minister or official required to terminate his or her career for having done nothing wrong.â€?

Contrast and compare the cases of Jo Moore and Martin Sixsmith, also forced in February 2002 to resign from their positions as a political adviser and civil servant respectively, the former having originally been reprimanded over an indiscretion for which dismissal had been judged to be unnecessary, and the latter having been formally acquitted of having done anything wrong or improper at all. Unwarranted dismissals, driven by panicky fear of an unfavourable press, seem to be a speciality of No. 10. Some have suggested that the resurrection of Peter Mandelson and his appointment to Brussels may reflect a guilty conscience on the part of his fire-proof old friend.

I carry no kind of candle whatever for Peter Mandelson. He is a main architect of New Labour and the hi-jacking of the Labour Party that I have supported, often with enthusiasm, sometimes faute de mieux, all my adult life. I remain unrepentantly but increasingly gloomily Old Labour, and hope that Brussels will keep the British Commissioner too busy for frequent visits to No. 10 Downing Street to plant suggestions for fresh betrayals of traditional Labour values in the empty flower-beds of Mr Blair’s mind. But I also recognise that leaving Mandelson to languish on the back benches has entailed a sad waste of exceptional talent and ability; that some at least of the extraordinary hostility to him, and its often unpleasantly personal character, is connected with his sexual orientation, which is or should be nobody’s business but his own; and that he has suffered massive injustice, not once but twice, at the hands of his greatest political ally and friend. I wish him well in Brussels. So should we all.

[1] [6 August 04] A friend has helpfully pointed out to me that (contrary to what I wrote above) Peter Mandelson borrowed the money from Geoffrey Robinson before either of them was a minister, indeed even before the 1997 election. He (the friend) has argued that the loan was, or could have been seen as, corrupt, because it could have been, and possibly was, perceived at the time as in effect a disguised payment in return for which Mandelson used his influence with Tony Blair to persuade Blair to appoint Robinson a minister (although not a Cabinet minister). I am not convinced by this, believing that Robinson’s appointment probably owed more to Gordon Brown’s backing than to Mandelson, and that anyway the chain of cause and effect is too speculative and indirect to warrant a charge of corruption. I continue to believe that Mandelson was guilty of no more than a failure of judgment in omitting to declare the loan to his permanent secretary on becoming a minister and that this should not have been regarded as justification for sacking him.


3 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    From Peter Harvey

    I agree. Mandelson is one of the very few people in British politics who really understand Europe, which is one of the reasons no doubt why he is regarded with such suspicion in Britain. His homosexuality also must be a factor, as you point out.

    But this is all part of the British idea that politics should be a branch of show business, not of administration. In the Guardian the other day, Durao Barroso was damned for being ‘colourless’, with no real analysis of his ideas. Of course, the problem with colourless people is that they give the clever but often nihilistic commentators and satirists no points to get hold of — and that won’t do for Britain.

    Mandelson had a sensible article published here after the Spanish elections. But politicians here are often colourless — people know just what colourful politicians can do — and privacy is regarded much more highly. Even aficionados of politics, my dip students for example, are hard-pressed to name a half-dozen deputies other than ministers and party spokesmen, and apart from Zapatero I have no idea whether any national or Catalan government ministers are even married. It does mean that they can get on with their jobs in peace.


  2. Anonymous says:

    PS When I say that Mandelson is one of the very few people in British politics who really understand Europe, I even think that there may be fewer now than there once were. Heath, and MacMillan I think, had wartime experiences that led to them to understand the political purpose of European unity, though Heath was economical with that aspect of the matter when he proposed British entry; and the consequences of that misjudgement are still plain to be seen.

    For most European countries, history is at best an unpleasant memory and at worst a horror to be escaped from. That is what makes Britain different: it perceives its history as glorious and the future as uncertain.


  3. Brian says:

    Postscript to this entry (6 August 04): I have added a new postscript today to this entry as a footnote to the main text, correcting a factual error in the entry to which a friend has helpfully drawn my attention. Unlike the friend concerned, I don’t think the correction affects the point I was making: indeed, in my view it reinforces it.