Peter Mandleson: the big reveal?

If you missed it, Mandleson: The Real PM? (which aired on BBC4 last night) will be on iPlayer for a little while, and was a fascinating but perplexing and frustrating watch. That ‘Real PM?’ was a tease at two levels: not just ‘do they mean Prime Minister or Peter Mandleson’ but ‘was that actually ‘the Real Peter Mandleson’. As a campaign mastermind, the man lives with a reputation for mastery of the dark arts of spin: although it amused him, on camera at least, to be called The Prince of Darkness, I was left wondering just how genuinely it’s a source of pleasure. A reputation for masterful stage management has a downside: we will always be left wondering how much of what we are watching is a performance. Not a fake so much as something that has been polished so rigorously we can no longer truly see it, as what we see when we focus on it are reflections of other things. We may have glimpsed his underpants as he changed trousers between meetings, but his soul remained covered at all times. But like many such ‘fly on the wall’ affairs, it was revealing at other levels: Mandleson may not have been our PM, but it was a programme that provoked interesting thoughts on leadership, loyalty, succession planning, adapting to changing circumstances and authenticity. And, of course, of managing a brand or a reputation.

Following him in the months leading up to the 2010 General Election, with occasional spliced footage from his history (reminding us of this family roots in the Labour Party, but only effectively if we were already in the know), Hannah Goldsmith’s film seemingly caught a man as groomed, precise and controlled behind the scenes as in front of them. We’ll never know the level of editorial control exercised, the conditions applied or the true ‘making of’, but it was easy to suspect that here was a man who has no ‘off guard’ moments to capture.

One possible reaction to the programme was to reflect on what the career does to the person pursuing it. Previously working in television, Mandleson chose to move into politics as the Labour Party’s Director Communications in 1985. It would have been fascinating to explore a dichotomy that modern life has brought to many industries: politics – as Mandleson above all will be acutely aware – is very much about branding, positioning, demographic profiling and the presentation of personality. Parties, like manufacturers or service providers, spent enormous energy on projecting their brand. (The programme made an interesting contrast with Andrew Marr’s JFK: The Making of Modern Politics, shown earlier this week, although Mandleson could never dream of having the Kennedy’s fiscal war chest to back his campaigning. Editors and stylists may spin, twist or tweak, but money really speaks.)

But ‘selling the benefits not the features’ (that old marketing mantra) also obscures those ‘features’: in Mandleson’s trade, that means the policies. Passion, another word probably now used far too often and too meaninglessly, logically springs from belief in policy (just as it should spring from belief in the product or service in other industries), yet policy was oddly missing from the programme. A man so adept at communications management could presumably have made a considerable fortune in advertising or PR, yet he chose politics.

The programme, however, didn’t leave us particularly wiser as to why. The paradox of promoting the passion in the abstract – as the detail of what the passion was for – seemed lost on both interviewer and interviewee. (A pointed summed up in Metro’s review of the programme, The Real PM? failed to tell us what Peter Mandelson really believes in.) Marketing and promotion, whatever sector you operate it, is at some level about believability: in following the lead to an election that nobody won, this was a programme that should have something to say about PR, marketing and presentation – and had an acknowledged expert as its subject – but the open goal was ignored.

One of the themes of development as a leader – and Mandleson is a significant figure even if not actually a party leader – is self-awareness. Mandleson’s amusement at his own public perception did seem to reveal a sense of humour about itself. It amused me that The Daily Mail was the newspaper to print the following:

Lord Mandelson revelled in the popular characterisation of him as the ‘Dark Lord’ as a fellow rail traveller asked him to sign her newspaper with that name. The Business Secretary obliged, despite being handed a copy of The Guardian. “I used to be the prince of darkness,” he said, referring to his reputation as a wily political operator in the shadows of Westminster. But being a peer of the realm I suppose I am the dark lord.”

Meghann Jones, […] approached him on the train from London King’s Cross to Newcastle, while he was standing in the aisle chatting to journalists. Next to a Guardian headline about Labour’s “dreadful week”, Lord Mandelson wrote: “For Megan (sic), love from Peter Mandelson pp The Dark Lord”.

Yet ultimately, self-awareness also seems to lead to another dichotomy. Tony Blair once said that the New Labour project “would never be completed until Labour learns to love Peter Mandelson”. (Never likely to be admirers, The Daily Telegraph were more blunt, pointed out that: “The primary reason he never became leader of Labour was that most of the party loathed him.” But they have a point: Ed Miliband recently described Mandleson as “his own worst spin doctor”.) If Mandleson, one of the architects of that project, is hurt that his creation plainly remains incomplete, he isn’t about to reveal it publicly. This reluctance reads two ways: either that he is unconcerned that his reputation has not remained unsullied (which doesn’t seem very likely), or that he sees this suppression of emotion as an expression of emotional intelligence. I suspect the public – and who else, ultimately, is he pursuing his trade to service? – would rather he wept a little or looked plausibly hurt.

I was reminded more than once about comments that are made about The Queen and her overwhelming sense of duty, and how in private she is not just every bit as intelligent and informed as we might hope, but also very funny. With Mandleson, I was left with a similar impression – and largely denied the humour (although his jibes at George Osborne after the first televised leaders’ debate were priceless, as well as supremely well-honed: stand-up comedy might have been as promising an alternative career as advertising). The Queen also doesn’t have to wrestle with the pressure to act as a spokesperson or crusader for a sexuality: Mandleson may have chosen to work in the public eye, but remains intensely tight lipped about his private life. His heterosexual colleagues will never be the subject of articles such as one by Peter Tatchell: whether or not he could do more about ‘the pink ceiling’, the choice should be his but that won’t stop the articles from coming.

It’s interesting to compare his public image of sliminess with his words in an interview with Conservative blogger, Iain Dale, for Total Politics:

I was always loyal. I started at the beginning of my career, my full time career in politics, as very loyal to Neil Kinnock, even though I didn’t agree with everything he was saying and doing, but I nonetheless thought he was tremendously courageous and bold in the leadership he gave to the party. I ended up equally as loyal to Gordon Brown who I didn’t agree with entirely either and I will be loyal to Ed Miliband because that’s how I am.”

The role of a campaign director is to win the campaign, and Mandleson’s input in making his party electable (at least until 2010, when the task might have defeated almost anyone) is hard to deny. But at the time of writing, he remains a peer but as he tells Iain Dale– apart, presumably from book royalties – “I don’t have an income any more”. The film saw him pondering what he might do next, and his comments on his weekend schedules seemed to show him as a man who had little life outside work beyond a bit of TV, maybe a DVD, possibly playing with the dog. There was powerful lesson here, and one that a different subject of focus might have prompted a director underline: workaholics are as good a judge of work-life balance as alcoholics are of knowing when to say ‘no no, just a lemonade for me’.

Incongruous as it will sound to many, it was possible to feel a little sorry for him. The man who had a strategy for almost everything turned out not have a strategy for himself. Judgement was again left hanging as to whether he was now (as Iain Dale described him in an earlier postless moment) “a fish looking for water”, or whether we should agree with The List:

A self-confessed workaholic, he appears bereft: where do master manipulators go when they have no one left to manipulate?”

The man who injected such a sense of the urgent importance of modernising hadn’t grasped the socio-historic trend towards each man for himself, and a career environment where loyalty is also a matter of personal economic judgement. The Business Secretary (among many titles) seemed not to have a lesson to impart to us on striking a balance between serving our organisations and serving ourselves.

Similarly, he understands legacies and succession but it is difficult to ascertain how far he understands his own. He may attempt to deploy wit when the question arises, as it did in a recent interview with The Herald Scotsman:

I tell him that on the way to meet him I bumped into a young teller from my local RBS branch who, when I mentioned his name, said: “Who’s he?” He looks puzzled, annoyed, crestfallen, incredulous. “Who’s he?” How quickly the circus moves on.”

And he acknowledges in the Iain Dale interview the succession needs to be handled plausibly (“Gordon suffered more than anyone from the shoe-in”), but I wonder if that all-seeing lizard gaze doesn’t have a blind spot or two. Here’s an extract from earlier in the same article:

[…] people can buy the media myth of Gordon and see a rather defensive, rather dour, serious person who doesn’t handle people, television interviewers, very well. What they don’t see is the guy who has a very firm grasp of what’s going on in the world and what we’ve got to tackle as governments. Not government but governments. Somebody who has strong opinions, strong convictions, but who has an ability, one on one and in small groups, to lead people, to manage them, to make them laugh.

There are two Gordons. Shall I give you my opinion? It will be the private Gordon that enables him to reinvent himself. It will be the big brain, the strong heart, the man who has good gut instincts for what needs to be done in the world.”

I was left pondering how someone as obviously bright, and as obviously aware of the power of ‘the media myth’, could fail to see the irony – unless the irony is all too visible, but the judgment has been made to keep it private. It’s churlish not to wish anyone well, so let’s hope that the book royalties will keep him in muesli and well-chosen ties till the next opportunity comes. It would be a strange comment on talent management in the UK if a former European Commissioner for Trade and Secretary of State for Business, Skills and Innovation didn’t get a job offer or two.

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