Mandelson And New Labour

 

The revelation that Mr Peter Mandelson - spin doctor and media guru extraordinary of Mr Tony Blair's New Labour government - accepted a personal loan from a minister his department is investigating is a damaging blow to its credibility. That this was admittedly in October 1996, before both men went into government, pales before the more important fact that it was not disclosed when they did, nor when the lender, Mr Geoffrey Robinson, came under investigation for possible breaches of company law. The disorganised Conservative opposition has therefore been handed a choice morsel with which to berate the cronyism and arrogance which it says typify Mr Blair's government. He has made it a standing policy that ministers regarded as having transgressed political ethics will have to go immediately, rather than be picked off after intrusive and baying press campaigns. It presumably follows that Mr Mandelson is not culpable in Mr Blair's eyes and that he will be defended come what may.

It could hardly be otherwise, given Mr Mandelson's crucial role in New Labour. Strategically he targeted precisely the kinds of people this loan enabled him to live among, in a successful effort to convince them their interests would not be threatened and would in fact be better served by a Labour government. He has been successful in this task. His busy efforts to head off this damaging story show how skilful he can be. But it remains to be seen whether this skill will be as effective after these revelations. His not having declared the interest when he was appointed to office, nor when the investigation into Mr Robinson's affairs was announced, takes substantively from the government's credibility as a critic of similar practices among the Conservatives in office and seems bound to linger as a standing reproach to its clean image.

This may all simply be part of the end of the Blair government's extraordinarily long honeymoon. It has been elongated by the depth of public disenchantment with the Tories and their often monumental ineptitude in opposition under the leadership of Mr William Hague. It has also been helped, of course, by an obsessive concern for media image and spin; and close and continuing attention to policing the boundaries between new and old Labour. Political factionalism between the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Gordon Brown, and Mr Mandelson may also be discerned behind this story. Mr Mandelson's faction won out in Mr Blair's first shuffle during the summer and this has not been forgiven in the Brown camp.

Mr Blair's political style and decision-making have been coming under increasing criticism from generally sympathetic quarters as the long honeymoon comes to a close. In Scotland and Wales the devolution issue has been handled ineptly in recent weeks and months, as Labour tripped itself up in arguments with nationalists. The abiding centralist style does not go down well in either place. Mr Blair's European policy is lately predicated on closer defence co-operation with France; but his collaboration with the United States in bombing Iraq last week makes that more difficult to achieve. These may or may not be straws in the wind. But as one of Mr Blair's predecessors in office, Harold Macmillan, recognised so well, events have a nasty habit of catching up with political leaders.