Along with Andrew Roberts, Matthew d'Ancona, Stephen Bayley, Iain Dale and John Kampfner, I was asked by Dylan Jones, editor of GQ, to write a mock obituary of Peter Mandelson for the January issue. Now that the February issue is out, I reprint my contribution here.
He Was the Resurrection
Died: 20 January 2037
"Even Jesus only had a Second Coming," said one commentator when Peter Mandelson returned to Cabinet a third time under Gordon Brown in 2008. When he eventually returned for his fourth and longest incarnation, in the Conservative administration of Boris Johnson in 2016, at the age of 62, he called himself "The Comeback Comeback Comeback Kid". Each time he fell from grace, it seemed that his career was over, and each time that career up to that point would have satisfied all but the most ambitious of politicians. When he was forced to resign from Tony Blair's Cabinet at the end of 1998, after just six months as Trade and Industry Secretary, he had already played a central part in constructing a New Labour party that won the greatest victory in two-party politics, inaugurating the longest single period of Labour rule. When he was forced out a second time in early 2001 he had added a critical contribution to the settlement in Northern Ireland.
Then, when the Labour government crashed out of power in 2010, he had enjoyed the prestige of being a highly-regarded trade commissioner for the European Union before being recalled unexpectedly as, in effect, deputy prime minister during the economic crisis. He could have retired with some comfortable non-executive directorships and a well-remunerated line in waspish commentary, but in many ways, at the age of 56, the story one of the most remarkable statesmen of his generation had only just begun.
He was born in the same year as Blair, but whereas Blair was brought up in a Conservative household, Mandelson was born into Labour aristocracy, the grandson on his mother's side of Herbert Morrison, Deputy Prime Minister in Clement Attlee's postwar government. For him, Labour politics was destiny; a spell as a television producer a means to an end. His big break was to land the job of Labour Party Director of Communications in 1985. Although the party lost both elections he fought, in 1987 and 1992, he transformed an amateur voluntary organisation into a professional campaign machine. He then decided to become a player rather than a back-room fixer, winning election for Hartlepool as a Labour MP. For a long time, Blair's dependence on his advice kept him in the back room, "in the dark", as Mandelson complained, before he made it to the Cabinet and finally became a politician in his own right.
In a way, the 2010 defeat was a turning point, because the way forward was no longer the New Labour "project" that he, Blair and Brown had constructed. He did take some well-paid directorships - including the one that was to bring him down for the fourth and final time. But he attracted most attention for the shift in his loyalties, recorded in his famous saying, "Le tart, c'est moi," when he accepted the post of ambassador to Washington from David Cameron, who urgently needed to repair his relations with the Obama administration. Mandelson had begun to develop a reputation for memorable and rather unhelpful sayings, which paradoxically seemed only to enhance his reputation, although it is thought unlikely that he actually said, on his friend Tony Blair's appointment as cardinal archbishop, that "a palace is worth a Mass".
His return to the Cabinet, summoned in haste when Boris Johnson overthrew Cameron and needed the support of Labour MPs on the European enlargement issue, opened the most successful phase of his career, in which he enacted the Company Tax Reform Bill - "A thing of beauty and a joy for ever" - and inaugurated the golden age of enterprise in the 2020s.
Iain Dale's is here. If you want the rest, you'll have to find a January GQ.
Photo by Annette Boutellier