OPINION: Mandelson's foibles add to pressure on PM

In this column on 15 December last year I wrote off Peter Mandelson: 'The Government's emptiest PR vessel is clearly sinking'. Now he is sunk, probably as definitively as the German battleship the Graf Spee, whose remains I was inspecting in Montevideo when the Mandelson finally went down. Curiously, just as the Graf Spee was scuttled, so the politician sank himself. He was always likely to do so, given his constant courtship with political death, but the end came a bit faster than I thought likely. Otherwise I would have been in on the kill and not abroad.

In this column on 15 December last year I wrote off Peter Mandelson: 'The Government's emptiest PR vessel is clearly sinking'. Now he is sunk, probably as definitively as the German battleship the Graf Spee, whose remains I was inspecting in Montevideo when the Mandelson finally went down. Curiously, just as the Graf Spee was scuttled, so the politician sank himself. He was always likely to do so, given his constant courtship with political death, but the end came a bit faster than I thought likely. Otherwise I would have been in on the kill and not abroad.

I am less concerned with the precise reasons why Mr Mandelson departed than with the manner and implications of his going. There is now a pattern to his behaviour to which Keith Vaz, the beleaguered Foreign Office Minister, adheres: maintain a display of injured innocence. This lot of ministers seem to believe they are incapable of doing anything wrong or badly, even after the Blair/Ecclestone and Blair/Murdoch/Prodi murk, Gordon Brown's statistical sleights of hands in assorted budgets, the Robin Cook affair, Lord Falconer's mismanagement of the Millennium Dome and gerrymandering over political donations. Only Ron Davies bit the instant dust, presumably because his nocturnal resort to a south London park was an impossibly broad interpretation of his Welsh brief. After all, homosexual encounters are no bar to Cabinet office, let alone an offence.

Yet this was a government that fought the last election on a simple platform: 'We will clean up politics'. So what did that require them to do? Well, the first law of political PR - any PR - is to practise what you preach.

Otherwise you are likely to be exposed as a hypocrite, which does not go down well with voters. So they should have come to office with an acute sense of responsibility for good behaviour. But their election platform required more than that. The second law of political PR - any PR - is not merely to behave but be seen to behave. Otherwise you just look evasive, furtive and rum, which also goes down badly with voters. And who was the guiding PR light of this government both before and after 1997? Why, the sunken Mr Mandelson.

He, above all, should have known what their platform required of himself and his party. That means that, if he couldn't behave, he should have known to go quietly first time round over his remarkable mortgage arrangements and sit this parliament out in penance on the backbenches. His failure to do so and then to get into resigning trouble again in the same parliament demonstrates either monumental stupidity or monumental arrogance, or both - and not merely in himself, but also in his boss, Mr Blair.

We now have to ask ourselves whether this government - the most presentationally conscious and obsessive government in British history - has any public relations sense at all.



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