Mandelson tells it straight


I have known Peter Mandelson for fifteen years. In the early years, before the 1997 election, I worked for him directly as part of the Labour campaign team. Generally, he tolerated me, presumably judging my willingness to work hard and do what I was told unquestioningly almost made up for my inexperience and naivety.

When Peter was in Government and me left working for the Party (I wasn't one of the chosen few invited into the corridors of power) our relationship became more attenuated. I would occasionally get a call demanding I think up some amusing one liners for this speech or that. Sadly, few of my ideas were repeatable let alone appropriate for a speech by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry; the calls finally dried up when I suggested an opening line for a speech to Westland Helicopters which included reference to 'riding on a big chopper'!

There was also a brief and unhappy time in Number Ten after Peter's second resignation but before he went to Europe when he would be virtually smuggled into Number Ten. He was supposed to be overseeing strategy, but lacking any formal role and still bruised at the manner of his second resignation, he had the power to interfere but not the capacity to lead.

Last week I met up with someone from the current Downing Street set up. He isn't the kind of person naturally to get on with Peter. Indeed I can recall him in the past suggesting Mandelson represented everything that was wrong with New Labour. But now my friend is effusive; 'wise', 'thoughtful' and 'approachable' were just some of the words in the paean of praise.

I was reminded of this when I read about Lord Mandelson's speech today in New York. I am relying on press reports but, for once, it feels like a Government minister is getting it right about the politics of the recession.

There are three aspects to what has been briefed that I welcome. First, Mandelson is encouraging minsters to resist the temptation to come up with new ideas every day which they claim are justified by, or will have a major impact upon, the recession. Given the scatter gun nature of much of President Obama's stimulus package this is good advice on both sides of the Atlantic. Second, Peter is honest about the sheer unknowability of the course of the recession. Labour ministers have veered between empty reassurance and Ed Balls' 'we're doomed' analysis. The reality is that none of us know how bad this will be and there is not much point speculating. Third, most significantly (and in line with an argument I have made in this blog), Peter is philosophical about the political impact of the recession. The message implied is 'we are bound to be attacked by the media and criticised by the public. There is no point trying to win people over at the moment. Instead we need to be seen to be focussing totally on responding to an ever changing situation'.

This speech won't change much. It won't have an effect on the economy and, politically, as I have often said in the past, the key factors all point to a Conservative victory next year. But it was a speech that needed to be made. It is honest and direct; new adjectives to be applied to the man who used to be the Prince of Darkness.

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