The stories told against Peter Mandelson are much more numerous than the stories he's alleged to have told against others. There's the one about the time he went down to his Hartlepool constituency intent on being one of the lads. The lads went for a bag of fish and chips and Mandelson spotted a side order of mid-green hue. "Guacamole!" he is said to have remarked delightedly. The lads identified them as mushy peas.
Mandelson's lean, elegant frame looked shattered as he watched Tony Blair deflecting cannons full of snowballs from William Hague in the House of Commons. Hague may be a Tory, but he never gets his mushy peas wrong. While carefully nurtured political capital was being squandered in spendthrift style by the very men who put it together, people on this side of the Irish Sea were surprised at the consequences of Mandelson's brand of mature recollection and economy with the truth.
Mandelson's behaviour may have been seen as indicating a monumental error of judgment, but not mentioned was the pressure placed on him as minister responsible for the impossible Dome to raise money for a project intended to repair fragmented Britain's sense of nation. Left unsaid too was the vacuum between New Labour's stress on moral propriety and its equal urge to develop public/private partnerships, of which the Dome was an early example. It is writ large in British Labour that no matter how refined the tables you dine at, you never forget the taste of mushy peas. It is not writ anywhere how you do the business at the same time.
If there was in fact a monumental error of judgment, then this side of the Irish Sea may be getting something very wrong. Brown-nosing the rich and famous doesn't seem so bad to a culture wrapped in brown envelopes. Cash for passports? Been there already. And if that is a correct perception, then in Ireland there is no sin now, there is only politics. You're judged increasingly not by your actions or misdeeds, but on your ability to survive the fallout when you make the wrong call. What the response to Mandelson's resignation would suggest is how that attitude has seeped out of the political cauldron and dulled the ethical instincts of the wider world.
THE circumstances in which Bertie Ahern might accept a senior minister's resignation are so few as to be almost works of fiction. Severe illness; convictions for indecent assault, or worse; proven acts of sleeping with the enemy, confirmed by tabloid photographs and forensic evidence. It wouldn't happen in the US either. Bill Clinton swore blind to the world that "I did not have relations with that woman - Ms Lewinsky" and then remembered a small sortie with her near his Oval Office. He's just left office with one of the highest public approval ratings of any outgoing President.
When Peter erred before, Blair went out on a limb to stand by his man. Mandelson's rapid return as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland almost beat Bill's record as Comeback Kid. Now, Mandelson has erred again. No more comebacks, no political tomorrows. The peace process may be at a crucial stage, but not even this was enough to change Blair's mind.
The other reading of the Mandelson story rests on the thesis that Mandelson was the loser in a bigger contest between him and Labour press secretary Alastair Campbell. In that scenario, Mandelson is the brilliant partner who manages Blair's electability by marrying it to a brand of political credibility that Labour had lost years before.
But he has a fatal flaw. His preference for the world of guacamole leads him into company New Labour would prefer him not to keep. His alleged cosying up to the Hinduja brothers is not too far away in media imagery from the bete noir of the British establishment, Mohammed al-Fayed, and thus pushes many uncomfortable buttons. Finally, with both his eyes fixed firmly on Northern Ireland, he forgets the need to play politics at home.
The potentially tragic dimensions of this scenario rewrite Mandelson as a latter-day Diana brought down by his very elegance and steel. When Blair called the resignation tragic, he may have had that picture in mind - with the understanding that the image doesn't threaten New Labour, for the obvious reason that Mandelson was never a popular figure. He was never one of the lads.
Mandelson is the second successive Northern Ireland Secretary whose exit from the post has also meant an exit from politics. It is a dangerous job for any ambitious Labour politician. On the face of it, Mandelson's exit could hardly be more different from the reasons behind Mo Mowlam's removal from office. Mowlam stood accused of being too touchy-feely - and of getting a standing ovation at her party conference. She had lost the support of the unionist community, but then any woman in Northern Ireland who takes off her apron puts her image up for grabs. Although Blair noted in particular the handling of policing in Northern Ireland as Mandelson's lasting legacy, that refrain was not echoed in the tributes paid by the Irish Government. Mandelson was not the hero of the nationalist community. This, of course, has nothing to do with his current trials.