Opinion: Leader - Image paradox still hampers Mandelson

It is somehow ironic that Peter Mandelson, once inextricably linked with the 'dark arts' of behind-the-scenes spin, seems ever destined to become the story itself.

This started during his seminal time as Labour Party communications director, accelerated throughout his turbulent career as MP and minister, and has been writ large over the past month during the 'Bra Wars' Chinese trade affair, in which Mandelson, as EU trade commissioner, has often taken centre stage in the media.

It is of course a sign of the man's ambition. He will have been only too happy to see his face splashed across the front of the FT this week, and to be interviewed in the 8.10pm slot on the Today programme, though probably less comfortable with the Mail on Sunday's recent choice of a full-page photo of him relaxing with his partner at a concert in Italy.

But he can't be happy with how his image has developed over the summer.

He has been branded 'arrogant and naive' by Monsoon retail entrepreneur Peter Simon; all but accused of lying by Robert Zoellick, the US deputy secretary of state, during the Boeing-Airbus spat; and John Humphrys really stuck the knife in during his now-infamous Comms Directors' Forum speech, when he said Mandelson was 'detested by everyone'.

Having interviewed Mandelson it is difficult to agree with the image he has accumulated. In person he can be charming, stimulating and refreshingly honest.

This paradox is sure to test the capabilities of his Irish spokesman Peter Power - recently appointed to replace Frenchwoman Claude Veron-Reville (News, page 3) - because Mandelson simply does not come over well in the media. His thoughtfulness comes across as creepy, his sharp mind as pernickety, and rather than confident he is perceived as precious.

Does it matter? In terms of the job he is now doing, probably not. But deep down Mandelson must yearn for the presentation skills of Tony Blair, the man he once so successfully spun.


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