MEDIA: When 'injured parties' go to war: Just where does the cash for passports furore leave Peter Mandelson now?

The Peter Mandelson saga rumbles on. It has already claimed one high-profile ministerial scalp, and as PRWeek went to press, with the disgraced minister continuing to dominate front pages, it is far from clear whether his will be the last.

The Peter Mandelson saga rumbles on. It has already claimed one high-profile ministerial scalp, and as PRWeek went to press, with the disgraced minister continuing to dominate front pages, it is far from clear whether his will be the last.

Despite Mandelson's retracted mea culpa, and the confusion he has shown in articulating claimed innocence, it may be that former aide Ben Wegg- Prosser is right to choose Mandelson's 'style and methods in communication' as his 'enduring legacy'. But the escalating war of words between the outgoing minister and those left behind in Downing Street, is looking very messy indeed.

According to an NOP Solutions survey for PRWeek, 40 per cent of voters feel such scandals could affect the way they vote. Almost 60 per cent of those questioned felt the media outcry was a bigger problem for the party than for Mandelson.

It was an angry press secretary whose firm stance with the Prime Minister led to the ex-Northern Ireland secretary's departure last week As the election approaches - smart money still has 3 May in mind - the impact of this most flamboyant communicator is up for analysis.

Any assessment of Mandelson's contribution to Labour must focus on the early hours of 2 May 1997, and London's Royal Festival Hall. As Mandelson danced to D:Ream's election anthem Things Can Only Get Better, he was surrounded by a bunch of old Labourites in equal measure wary of him, conscious of his bond with the new Prime Minister, and oblivious to the fact that without the talents of the former communications director and now MP for Hartlepool, none of this would have been possible.

That, at least, is the narrative Mandelson loyalists tell, and they are plenty. Most of those who have worked for him remain on-message. It is easy to dismiss his work as less important than that of successive party leaders Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair, or chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown. But even those who have become critical of the fallen spin king insist it is churlish to ignore what he gave the party.

Derek Draper, the former aide later floored in the 'Lobbygate' scandal, is resolute: 'Prior to Peter, professionalism in the Labour party was a dirty word. Now it is de rigeur.' His great contribution, Draper insists, was in building up the reputation of Blair in the public mind. Ilan Jacobs, who worked in Mandelson's office in opposition, agrees: 'His combined talents are irreplacable. Hopefully Labour will never need to see his like again.'

One ally in the modernisation fight was Shandwick public affairs boss Colin Byrne. He supports the claim that though PR wishes to claim Mandelson as one of its own, this is not how he sees himself: 'His contribution was to spearhead modernisation of both policy and structures. Millbank's creation as a modern fighting machine was largely up to him. And yet he only saw communications as a means to an end. He stands out because he understood the value of strategic communications,' says Byrne.

It is often said that while he was superb at party PR, he was awful at his own. And yet critics make a case that in fact he is credited with much more than he was actually responsible for.

Labour's red rose logo, which along with the abolition of Clause 4's commitment to public ownership came to symbolise the party's transformation from unelectable rabble to stealthy electoral tiger, is widely thought to have been his idea. A revisionist school is gaining ground which claims this classy rebranding act was in fact the brainchild of Philip Gould, Blair's key pollster.

Mandelson's speedy return to the cabinet just ten months after quitting following the Robinson home loan affair called into question the Prime Minister's judgement and further angered those whom he had offended in the past.

This caucus included a large body of political journalists who had been bullied, manipulated or undermined by Mandelson throughout the 1980s and 1990s. 'In 1985 the hostile Tory press meant being tough was the only tactic likely to get the message across. But there was then no fund of goodwill for when the tough times came. Eventually, that cost him,' Jacobs says.

Some journalists tried to understand his modus operandi. Luther Pendragon's Michael Brunson, the former ITN political editor, describes him as 'bullying, fearsome and overbearing,' but insists he was only doing his job. 'It will do the party good to have got rid of him, though, and they should be free of destabilising rumours.'

Some have questioned the tactics used by Mandelson in his PR role. 'As a media manager Peter would have one trusted journalist on each paper with whom he could place stories. As a politician this strategy would backfire because it left another three or four writers on each paper feeling left out and resentful,' Draper says.

If all Mandelson leaves behind is a focused electoral machine one would expect party supporters to miss his talents just months from an election. Of course, he also leaves a profound sense of relief among former cabinet colleagues - all caught smiling as they emerged from their meeting the day after he left.

Perhaps Mandelson's legacy will be memories of how nasty, bitter squabbles seemed to emerge in whichever group of people he found himself.

John Underwood, his successor as head of communications, is scathing: 'Without Peter, this boil at the top of the party - a string of petty feuds - has been lanced. There is a mythology about his skills but the loss of them is outweighed by the benefits of his departure.'

It is a sentiment even shared by some of Mandelson's friends - the election team of Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander will still run a fine show and Labour will still romp home. Especially since, with the conservative force of Mandelson gone, the old Labour elements will be given a freer hand on election strategy. 'Expect,' says Draper, 'a little less of the 'new' and a bit more of the 'Labour'.'

The damage to Labour's reputation was initially dealt with quickly and decisively by a press secretary who had been misled and had in turn misled his flock. Alastair Campbell's reputation had been enhanced by recent events, until the spiteful briefing last Friday which reignited what appeared to be a dying fire and guaranteed a fresh round of Sunday front pages which rattled into this week.

Underwood says: 'Alastair knew they had an inconsistent position at the start of last Wednesday and by the end of the day one would have to go.

He had a reputation as a tough but honourable and honest man. He has grown through this.'

Speculation on what Mandelson will do next is, it seems, a little hasty.

He has made clear his intention to stand for Hartlepool again in the face of bitter opposition by Campbell and the rest of Downing Street. It is thought unlikely he will choose to work in commercial PR. 'He could run anything from the Arts Council to a technology company,' says Byrne. 'He will not be coming to Shandwick.'

The final word must go to GPC director Joy Johnson, the former Labour PR chief to whom Mandelson didn't speak for a whole year after a story she had done for the BBC. 'He was the primary architect of new Labour, and a brilliant tactician,' she concedes, 'but recent success wasn't all down to him.'



MANDELSON The rise and fall of a spin king

1953 Peter Benjamin Mandelson is born in London, the grandson of wartime Labour cabinet minister Herbert Morrison. He studies PPE at Oxford then he works as a trade union official before taking a job at London Weekend Television.

1985 Hired by Labour leader Neil Kinnock to be director of communications and campaigns. Credited with smartening up the party's image. Party is routed again in 1987, but by a smaller majority.

1992 Mandelson secures his own mandate as Hartlepool MP.

Not rated by Labour leader John Smith and spends three years as a backbencher.

Smith's death in 1994 led Mandelson at the last minute to switch allegiance from Gordon Brown to Tony Blair for the party's leadership. Blair wins, and Brown never forgives him.

1997 Labour wins majority of 179. In charge of election planning, Mandelson's stock rises as Blair moves to Downing Street. Rumours of a split with the Brown camp persist. 'Mandy' is unpopular among Brown aides, against whom he fights a relentless briefing war, even after he takes over as trade and industry secretary.

1998 Mandelson resigns from the DTi following the revelation he borrowed pounds 373,000 from the then treasury minister Geoffrey Robinson to buy a house in Notting Hill, making himself financially dependent on a businessman his department was meant to be investigating.

1999 Blair, in what many commentators agree is an error of judgement, brings Mandelson back as secretary of state for Northern Ireland. He makes steady progress in the role but is dogged by intrusions into his private life - he has a Brazilian boyfriend - and allegations of impropriety on a range of issues.

2001 Asked if he intervened in a passport application by billionaire Srichand Hinduja just weeks after the Hinduja clan gave pounds 1m to the Millennium Dome's faith zone, he is less than frank to Alastair Campbell. This is a big mistake and in an unprecedented move, he leaves the cabinet for the second time in two years.



Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.