Review: Mandelson – The Real PM?

In January Peter Mandelson invited Hannah Rothschild to document the dying days of the Labour government. The result proves to be both unsurprising and fascinating.

By Peter Wozniak

Last night, as an expectant audience crammed into a screening room at the BFI, one might have been forgiven for thinking this was the release of an eagerly-awaited Hollywood blockbuster rather than a political documentary.

Excited viewers craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the (moderately) famous folk peppering the audience. Here, Jon Snow, the Channel 4 News presenter possessed of an exceptional taste in odd-looking ties. There, ‘The Queen’ director Stephen Freer. Even Ed Vaisey, the culture minister, elicited a few gasps (one couldn’t help but envy the man, whose job appears to consist primarily of being invited to such glitzy events – all the better to soak up the grass roots of British cultural establishment, we presume).

And there, sitting in an imperious and disdainful pose, sat the Prince of Darkness himself. This was no ordinary political life being brought under close scrutiny. Peter Mandelson, perhaps more than any other politician bar Tony Blair, is New Labour to all intents and purposes. What we were about to see was the insight into that project’s demise.

The release of Mandelson’s book ‘The Third Man’, straight after the election saw him shunned, Amish-style, from the circles of power in the Labour party. Even if it did upset the Labour bigwigs, there were ultimately very few surprises in the book. Would this 75-minute documentary be any different?

Not really. Almost everything in it is public knowledge. Gordon Brown, you will not be surprised to learn, is not the best politician in the world when trying to relate to the public. There was a sense of inevitability, didn’t you know, to Labour’s flagging 2010 campaign.

But, in suitably Mandelsonian style, this was not so much an insight into the substance of New Labour, but its feel and day to day workings. Everyone knew that inner Labour circles had doubts about Brown’s ability to connect with the public, but to see it displayed in the flesh was curiously fascinating.

As a Number 10 advisor tries to work out the problem with Gordon (even using that ghastly word: ‘brand’), Mandy intones: “He can have his braininess, he can be as brainy as he likes,” but Labour needed to present him as “somebody they can relate to as a human being,” rather than as “a cross between a snow-plough and a combine harvester”.

The sight of Mandelson railing against the former prime minister’s inability to put a tie on straight is weirdly compelling. One gets the impression throughout that the spin doctor, resurrected to rescue Labour’s ailing electoral fortunes, acted primarily as Gordon Brown’s wet nurse.

More than once we see Mandelson taking the call from Brown, desperately trying to reassure the prime minister about his style and how he was doing. Particularly revealing is Mandelson’s post-mortem with Brown after the first TV debate. “Ignore the spin and the polls… The format works for you… You’ve got a long way to claw back with the public, and you started that process tonight,” he declaimed on and on. It was easy to sense the insecurity at the other end of the line.

Thankfully, we are spared too much of Mandelson’s ‘home life’ beyond a few shots of him walking his dog and a wholly unnecessary sequence involving him changing his trousers.

That aside, this is heaven for political geeks. More than the sheer thrill of having a camera placed at the heart of the government machine – where journalists are seldom allowed to tread – the documentary’s main strength is that it is actually rather hilarious.

On discovering the Labour government has overspent in social care to the tune of £5.2 billion, the peer stares impassively: “Hmm, that’s unfortunate.” On the night of the TV debate, Mandelson’s exquisite pantomime taunting of George Osborne and Benedict Brogan sees him state: “Is he the only person you’ve got to talk to? Ben, tell George what to say!”

When Rothschild asks him about David Cameron, his response is hugely enjoyable. “He’s such a mummy’s boy!” the business secretary says. The banal follow-up question – “Which would you rather be: mummy’s boy or prince of darkness?” – is answered with a laconic smile. “Oh, definitely prince of darkness!”

Better still is a moment between the two great strategists, Mandelson and Osborne, as they stand together awkwardly waiting to be interviewed during the campaign. “When’s your book coming out Peter?” quips the Conservative. “Not yet,” intones Mandelson after a suspiciously long pause, to which Osborne replies, marvellously: “June, July?” Naturally, Mandelson has the last laugh: “I’m thinking of taking it to Corfu – Cassiopi, perhaps.” Such comedy sledging between politicians is something we rarely see in public but always long to. There is an almost voyeuristic charm to Rothschild’s work. We feel like flies on a tremendously interesting wall.

The antipathy between Mandelson and Alistair Campbell is also explored, summed up as the former Downing Street director of communications quizzes the filmmakers and upon finding out the subject of the documentary replies, with exasperation: “Oh for God’s sake!”

The pervading sense is, however, one of a man who, having spent his life thriving on power, has little idea what to do with himself when it is ripped away. It’s almost pitiable watching Mandelson coming to terms with the fact that he no longer gets to exercise his considerable Machiavellian capabilities.

During all of this, the man himself sat stoically, barely revealing a flicker of emotion. He did not applaud, but appeared suitably genial in the post-match Q & A with audience members.

Six months ago he was Baron of Hartlepool, first secretary of state, lord president of the council, secretary of state for business, innovation and skills – and the thread by which Gordon Brown’s government hung. Mandelson’s demise represents the passing of a political era.

The great survivor appears to have died a death at last, or has he? “Do you really think I could come back again?” he quipped in answer to a question on his future following the screening.

Stranger things have happened.

The documentary will be broadcast on the BBC next month