Once a prince of darkness, now loving the limelight

By Estelle Shirbon
April 7, 2010

BRITAIN-ELECTION/“Enjoy it!” That was the message from Peter Mandelson to Labour supporters this morning as he launched a vitriolic attack on the Conservatives during a speech in central London, clearly relishing every minute of it. Once nicknamed the “prince of darkness” for his ability to mastermind Labour’s strategy from behind the scenes, Mandelson has transformed into the party’s best public performer.

It was different in the days of Tony Blair, who could go out and dazzle the voters with his easy charm and passionate oratory, leaving Mandelson to the backroom strategic thinking that helped sweep New Labour into power in 1997 and keep them there for 13 years. Now fronted by Gordon Brown, whose strength lies more in his grasp of policy detail than in his presentational skills, and trailing the Conservatives in the polls a month before an election, Labour need all the charisma they can get. Mandelson has stepped up to deliver it, with evident jubilation.

Denouncing the Conservatives as “parish pump politicians for a global age”, Mandelson insisted that David Cameron and George Osborne had not really modernised their party but rather were still guided by a Thatcherite instinct to cut taxes, cut public spending, keep the state out of the economy as much as possible and hope for the best.

“How limp!” he cried, waving his arms in mock amazement. “How pathetic! How unimaginative! How unsmart!” This was a “dumbing down, bargain-basement approach to competitiveness”, he said, asserting that Conservative views on the role of the state in economic management “belonged in the Ark, aeons ago”.

Labour, in contrast, had learnt the lessons of the global financial crisis, he said, and knew that the markets could not be left entirely to their own devices. They should be given a helping hand by a government with a single-minded focus on building new sources of competitive strength for Britain to face a globalised future. The rise of the Asian middle classes was mentioned as a source of opportunities for Britain to compete in high-tech and knowledge-based services like health, education and sustainable energy.

“No one’s more pro-markets than I am in New Labour, heaven knows, but they have their limitations,” Mandelson said, getting a chuckle from an audience all too aware that many of the party’s more left-leaning supporters are uncomfortable with his cosy relationship with business. This is, after all, a man who once remarked that Labour was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”.

Warming to his subject, Mandelson went on to say he agreed with his opposite number on the Conservative front bench, Ken Clarke, about a lot of things — though it was a case of damning with faint praise as he lauded Clarke’s “bonhomie and warm words”. The real shame, Mandelson said, was that Clarke was so isolated in his own party, particularly on the issue of Britain’s relations with the European Union. (Clarke is well-known for his pro-EU stance, a rarity in his party, while Mandelson is a former EU trade commissioner.)

“You name me a single further member of the Tory shadow cabinet who holds the same views on Europe as Ken Clarke. Go on!” he said, before pausing for effect. “Actually, it’s hard to name a single member of the shadow cabinet.”

“I’ve looked, I’ve searched, I’ve tried to find a friend for Ken Clarke. He’s out there, lonely, friendless, looking for company!”

In contrast, David Cameron had taken the Tory members of the European parliament out of the mainstream centre-right EPP coalition that includes their colleagues from Angela Merkel’s and Nicolas Sarkozy’s parties, to instead bind them in an alliance with “xenophobes and homophobes”, “a fringe of eccentric, to put it mildly, but really a very unpleasant bunch of people”.

Whether or not the voters will buy Mandelson’s line that Labour is “emphatically, unreservedly, unequivocally not a government exhausted by 13 years in office” but rather is “full of ideas” remains to be seen. The opinion polls suggest that while many voters may not be totally convinced by Cameron’s Conservatives, they are thoroughly fed up with Brown and Labour.

It will be a hard sell during the next month of campaigning, but if nothing else, Labour can be sure that Mandelson is throwing everything he’s got at it. Whether in the discreet corridors of power or taking centre-stage, he is still a force to be reckoned with.

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