PUSSYCATS KILL FOR FUN
He likens himself to 'a kindly pussycat', and seems quite proud of the analogy.
A very good analogy, considering his allegiance to the Rothschilds.
Don't pussycats kill for fun?
Peter Mandelson: 'I had to be the hit man'
Peter Mandelson tells Decca Aitkenhead why he used to be the hard man of New Labour...but now he's just a pussycat
The most accurate article Lord Mandelson ever read about himself was written in the 1990s. It was, he recalls, all about "Peter's gang – how people wanted to be in Peter's gang – and that people who weren't really hated it and took it out on me for not being in my gang. The article said that I excluded people without knowing I was doing so, and that this bred resentment of me. It was very perceptive."
Did it make him more careful about upsetting people? He pauses for a fraction of a second, and slowly starts to smile.
"I think," he laughs, "history would suggest not."
And then, only seconds later, he makes a woman cry.
Actually, the woman had been building up to it for a good half an hour. We were sitting near her on a train from Leeds to London, and as people sometimes do she had been bellowing into her mobile, oblivious to the din she was making. Mandelson's eyebrows went up and up and up – "What is she doing? Who is she talking to?" – as if he'd never encountered such appalling vulgarity in his life. One of his aides gently gestured to the woman to pipe down – but she didn't notice, and so another aide reached round and asked her to lower her voice.
"Leave her alone!" Suddenly another man – quite unconnected to the woman – was on his feet, possibly a little the worse for wine, and advancing down the aisle towards us. "This is a democratic train! She can do what she likes!" Next thing, another man was on his feet. "Excuse me, I'm nothing to do with him – " he nodded towards Mandelson – "but she was disturbing me as well."
"Was I being that loud?" the woman began babbling. "This is a democratic train, and I vote for the other lot!" the first man shouted. "I'm very sorry," the second man insisted, "but she was being extremely loud." "Was I being loud?" she yelped. Passengers stared, the aides sank into their seats sniggering like schoolboys, and Mandelson froze, his face a picture of icy bafflement. "This has absolutely nothing to do with me," his expression seemed to say, "but really, isn't she awful?"
The commotion soon subsided, and the interview duly resumed. But as the train was pulling into King's Cross half an hour later, and Mandelson was ruminating on the power of Peter's gang to offend, the woman suddenly appeared beside us.
Her face is all red now, and she is trembling as she addresses Mandelson. "I want you to know," she chokes, "I just want you to know . . ." and she bursts into tears. "You've really, really upset me!" The aides exchange semi-aghast glances, wondering what to say. The woman stands there sobbing. And Mandelson just gets to his feet, raises his eyes to the heavens, and calmly walks away.
Had I witnessed such a moment at any point during the 90s, when I used to see a bit of Mandelson, I wouldn't have been the slightest bit surprised. Only last September I attended a dinner he hosted at Labour party conference, and observed the old Prince of Darkness at work – shadowy, conspiratorial, aloof. The exclusivity of Peter's gang was indeed a chillingly divisive dynamic – and so it was no surprise to see him make someone cry. The big surprise was that, in the two days I spent with Mandelson, she was literally the only one he couldn't be bothered to dazzle and charm.
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.
His skin is dewy, as if fresh from a spa facial, and his grooming so flawless he looks almost hyper-real, the cuff links and tie delicately co-ordinated, with their detail inversely echoed in his socks. I'd swear he even has his eyebrows shaped, though he denies it – "What, pay someone to rip my eyebrows out? Is that some kind of sexual thing?" His whole body seems weirdly untroubled by the passage of time, his movements fluid to the point of feline, but it's the voice above all which can mesmerise. He talks very softly – that old trick for winning people's attention that John Prescott, for one, never learned – and unusually slowly, giving the impression that every single word is invested with deep significance, even when it's quite innocuous.
The gift for mockery that used to be deployed at others' expense now tends to be directed at himself; when he says of the economic recovery, "we are in the post-intervention, pre-delivery stage", each syllable is enunciated to acknowledge the absurdity of his own jargon. At times his phrasing can be almost antiquated – he once tried to resign as honorary life president of Hartlepool United FC, he says, "but they wouldn't hear of it" – and his command of the dramatic pause would be hammy if it weren't always so exquisitely timed.
Before our first meeting, one of Mandelson's aides calls to make sure I'm not planning to dwell on the past. I promise him I'm not – and I mean it – but it's Mandelson himself who leads us inexorably back into his history. On a train to Luton to visit the Vauxhall plant, I ask what his biggest concern had been about returning to government last year. It's only meant to be a gentle opener – but he answers at extraordinary length.
"My biggest concern? Whether it would last," he says, smiling, "given my experience on the last two occasions. No, seriously – it was whether I would fit in. I think probably the nicest thing I've experienced – slightly in contrast to my previous time in government – is how warmly my cabinet colleagues have embraced me." Should Brown, I ask, bring back some more big beasts? "I don't really see myself as a big beast. More as a kindly pussycat." His aides start to giggle, but Mandelson continues, warming to his theme, "Yes, a kindly pussycat. I'm a kindly pussycat, with strong views about what we need to do.
"I think 10 years ago, and also 15 years ago, I was a very hard-nosed, uncompromising figure who was manning the barricades of change in the Labour party, and prepared to take down anything or anyone who stood in the way. I don't feel in that mode now. And secondly, I've learned from experience that you can defeat people without killing them. There aren't the life and death struggles we were engaged in in the Labour party 15 or 20 years ago. I've learned that there are different ways to take people with you. That you can disagree with people, and even defeat them, without leaving them badly bruised or destroyed."
Critics always accused him of relishing the destruction, and when I ask if that was true he doesn't exactly deny it.
"I just didn't question it," he says instead. "I think that everyone in politics wants to be liked, but I accepted too readily that it was a luxury that wasn't open to me. I had to be the hard man – and sometimes the hit man. Remember that in the 80s, when we were really engaged in hand-to-hand combat with those inside our party, I wasn't reckoning on a parliamentary or ministerial career. I didn't realise that you had to make friends and keep them, because they were those with whom you'd have to co-operate in later life. But if I had to relive what I had to do in the 80s I don't think I would do it any less convincingly, even brutally, because we had a lot going against us."
I think I can sense his aide starting to twitch – why are they talking about the past again? – but it's striking that Mandelson's point of reference goes all the way back to 80s, the era he returns to in conversation unprompted, time and time again. "It was like the wild west," he says nostalgically at one point. "It was tough." Interestingly, he also says that, excluding his present position, his favourite ever job was as Labour's campaign director back then. It was only later that things began to get difficult.
"By the time we got into government in 1997 – well, I was feeling obviously proud of the achievement of having won such a famous victory, but also slightly worn – slightly ragged – and I didn't make an immediate recovery. I didn't bounce back in the way that I expected. I wasn't entirely comfortable with myself, with my role, in my own skin. And also," he adds rather unnecessarily, "I had enemies."
He still wouldn't say he can afford the luxury of being liked – "Not if it means not making hard choices, no." But his relationship with the cabinet of today is completely unrecognisable. "I think people are aware that I'm not denying anyone their place in the sun. I'm not competing with them in the way I did before. 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."
Was fun missing from cabinet before his return?
"Well, I think it was missing from when I was in government before."
It certainly isn't missing now. I'm 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 – a grand tour with a man at the height of his powers, loving every step of the way. At the Vauxhall plant in Luton, an official issues protective wear before we go on to the factory floor, and Mandelson is asked to put on a belt protector to cover his buckle, but mishears the word. He stares at the official for a moment, looking artfully startled. "I wasn't quite sure where he was pointing to," he says delicately, "or what he was going to protect." The whole room dissolves into giggles. When we get back to London I'm supposed to leave, but Mandelson is in expansive mood – "Come to lunch, we're having lunch with Tony Blair," – and so now we're in a car heading east to the City, to present, of all things, a medal to Mandelson's former boss.
It turns out that we're not actually going to eat lunch – because, as far as I can tell, Mandelson seldom eats anything at all. For breakfast he has granola and green tea, to which Carole Caplin converted him in 1994 – "One of her enduring legacies," he murmurs archly. He doesn't bother with lunch, though if he's in the Lords he likes to steal an apple from Baroness Royall's office, and in the afternoons his PA fetches him some kind of chocolate bar from Pret A Manger – "A sort of tiffin thing, it's very nice." If he has to attend a dinner he will stay for the first course, then make his speech and head home, where he hasn't cooked for as long as he can remember. The last actual meal that I can identify seems to have been consumed 48 hours earlier.
"Peter Mandelson talks exclusively about his anorexia!" an aide quips, provoking much amusement in the car. "My diet chiefly involves me being hungry," Mandelson concedes, sounding rather proud of the fact. "But it's having a good effect on me. It's making me, well, not lean and mean, as I was – just lean and hungry."
At the lunch, Mandelson is to present Blair with the Fenner Brockway medal, in honour of his services to Anglo-Indian relations. "Rather an irony, really," Mandelson muses mischievously, running over his speech. "I mean, Brockway was a great pacifist. Not very appropriate, is it? Shall I point that out? Or would it be naughty?" When we arrive I'm completely taken aback at the former PM's appearance, for he 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. There are warm greetings, and as I'm introduced Mandelson pretends I'm there to shadow Blair, provoking another great jerky grimace.
"Oh no," Blair tells him. "No, not me, I'm the past. You're the future."
Mandelson can't resist inserting his pacifist jibe into the presentation speech, although I get the feeling it amuses him more than Blair, and is clearly lost on most of the audience of Indian dignitaries. He's still chuckling about it when we head back to meet a delegation from McKinsey in his Westminster office, a Pugin-free model of efficient modernity adorned with a framed cover of last November's Prospect magazine, showing a smiling Mandelson under the headline: "I've come home."
"If you stay with me for the rest of the day," he offers casually, eating a grape, with an unmistakable hint of showing off, "you'll end up with Gordon."
Mandelson is routinely described as the unofficial deputy prime minister, and it's about the only job title he hasn't acquired since returning to government. As first secretary of state and business secretary, he attends 35 of the cabinet's 43 committees and subcommittees, dwarfing the 17 Prescott used to attend as deputy PM. With 11 ministers answering directly to him, Mandelson's department is the now the biggest in Whitehall – but to describe him as Brown's de facto deputy is if anything to understate his position. He is arguably more powerful today than the prime minister himself.
In part, his power derives from a ministerial brief straddling almost every policy area of government, and in part from colleagues' eagerness to consult his advice; Ed Miliband recently described him as a "benign uncle", which Mandelson quotes to me several times with evident pleasure. His defeat of the abortive coup in June certainly made him indispensable to Brown – though interestingly, when I ask why he fought so hard to save his boss on the night of James Purnell's resignation, he says, "Because I thought it was wrong to lose a second leader in the course of a parliament. I thought the voters would not embrace it," which is not exactly a tribute to the prime minister's unique personal strengths.
He does, of course, talk at length about Brown's qualities when prompted; "a big brain . . . decisive intellect . . . leader for these times . . . highly respected . . . will be vindicated in due course," none of which is terribly original, but Mandelson has a remarkable quality for appearing believable, even though what he often is is merely on message. 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; he has somehow managed to retain the credibility of a disinterested outsider, despite having returned to the heart of government.
All of this makes him powerful – but none of it matters quite as much as one simple fact. Mandelson has acquired all this power by virtue of not wanting to be prime minister. As his great friend Robert Harris put it recently, "He thought it was all over and now he sees every day as a bonus." He never expected to be here, so he has everything to play for – and crucially, nothing to lose.
When he talks about bringing "a sense of playfulness" to government, it sounds relatively trivial, but in practice it provides him with formidable protection. On our second meeting, he explains that he has no mortgage on his £2.2m Regents Park townhouse, thanks to a windfall from the sale of an advertising agency he helped set up. "I haven't," he smiles mischievously, "always been lucky with mortgages, so perhaps it's just as well." An aide purses his lips, writes a note and passes it to Mandelson. "Oh dear," Mandelson pretends to whisper, "It's that look of disapproval." What does the note say? "Be serious. Stop pissing around," says Mandelson, looking hugely amused.
In a recent select committee, a Tory MP recalled that Margaret Thatcher once "famously made the remark that every prime minister needs a Willie [Whitelaw]. So you are the prime minister's Willie. Is that your role?" After a perfectly timed pause, Mandelson replied, "I'm tempted to extend the metaphor, but decorum – " bringing the house down. He teased a recent press gallery lunch with tales of being woken by "Jack tugging at my duvet", enjoying the hacks' consternation – who the hell is Jack? – before explaining, "Why, my dog, of course." Even his sexuality, once a semi-closeted source of, if not quite paranoia, then prickliness, is now a weapon in his armoury.
When I ask if he has ever been more powerful in his career, he looks annoyed. "I don't feel powerful or unpowerful. I refuse to pander to this ridiculous stereotype – and I mean that, I think it's just a rather lazy way of reporting politics. It's an excuse for not talking about policy. The Westminster lobby is incredibly gossipy; they don't actually understand politics, they only understand who's up and who's down." Which is true – but perhaps a bit rich coming from the man who more than anyone has personified the interpersonal political psychodramas of the last 20 years.
"Look," he retorts. "Who was it who wrote the policy review in the late 80s? Me. Who presided over the creation – who was one of the architects of New Labour, and of that change in policy that created a new political force in the 90s? Me. Who enjoyed driving new policy as a minister at the beginning of this government, and is now doing so again? Me. So I'm certainly not a policy blank. My big preoccupation is policy."
I'm sure it is – but whether he likes it or not, our big preoccupation with Mandelson has never been about policy. By all accounts he is a first-class minister, and in recent weeks the green shoots of a coherent government programme – on transport, climate change, social care – have been attributed to his influence. But the policy initiatives he's most closely associated with – the privatisation of Royal Mail and a proposed increase in tuition fees – are the least popular with the public. It is Mandelson's personality, not policy, which holds the country in his thrall.
If Labour lose the next election – and he puts their chances of winning at no better than evens – the big question is what will he do next? Should Blair become president of Europe, he doubts he'd go and work for him – "I don't think so, no." He talks admiringly, if vaguely, of the World Trade Organisation, and of "remaining somewhere in the world". But all the talk in Westminster is now of Mandelson returning to the Commons – to become the next leader of the Labour party.
In recent months Ladbrokes has cut the odds from 200-1 to 16-1. For every £1 staked on other frontrunners, £5 has been wagered on Mandelson, and the former chief whip Hilary Armstrong's consituency of North West Durham has already been mooted as a possible seat. An amendment to Jack Straw's constitutional reform bill will soon allow life peers to renounce their title, paving the way – if Mandelson wishes – for such a move.
Could it really happen? His aides dismiss the notion as silly-season nonsense. Mandelson was on holiday last week – in Corfu again, as a guest of Nat Rothschild, which after last year might suggest a certain devil-may-care confidence in itself – and was thus uncontactable. "The legislation has to get on to the statute book," is all he has said publicly on the matter so far. "I'm not anticipating any change for myself."
Even if he isn't, it will be intriguing to see what impact the speculation may have on his role in government, for it threatens to challenge the very core of his extraordinary power. When the cabinet reassembles in the autumn, will they still see a benign uncle – a kindly pussycat – sitting beside them at the table, or a new and formidable rival? Today, with Brown away on holiday, Mandelson takes charge of the country for a week. Less than a year ago, not one of them would ever have predicted even that.