12 APRIL 1997, Page 19


. . . said Mr Mandelson to Michael Horsley, who tells what it's like to be the great spin doctor's Tory opponent at Hartlepool WHEN I first met Peter Mandelson I was still a student. I was on a trip to the House of Commons and Mr Mandelson, my local MP, had arranged tickets for Prime Minis- ter's Question Time. As I waited in Cen- tral Lobby I wondered if the member for Hartlepool would live up to his Machiavel- lian public reputation. Was he really such a villain or was his villainy dreamt up by a right-wing press?

Suddenly I saw him. Passing through the ranks of tourists and policemen, heading straight towards me was the tall musta- chioed figure. And then. . . well, actually, it was quite deflating. He shook hands and asked me whereabouts in Hartlepool I lived. On hearing my address, he fixed me with a gracious beam and exclaimed, 'Yes, I know Your road very well indeed!' He enquired What I was reading at university, wished me Well and deposited me at the Commons Shop to stock up on my souvenirs. Last year, after two years at Smith Square in the Conservative Research Department, I was chosen as prospective Conservative candidate to stand against Mr Mandelson at the next general elec- two. On my selection Mr Mandelson duly What if he was only playing dead?' issued a statement: 'The Tory lie machine has arrived in Hartlepool in the form of Michael Horsley.' Not exactly welcoming me to the fray. But being born and bred in the town gave me a crucial advantage: I could more than match my opponent's knowledge of Hartlepool roads, streets, avenues and drives. The contest was on.

Since my selection I have met Mr Man- delson on several occasions, most entertain- ingly at a Westminster garden party given by a firm of lobbyists, and in Blackpool, at last year's Labour party conference.

The garden party meeting was sinister. It was the first time I had seen him since my trip to the Commons. It was a glorious sum- mer evening, the champagne flowed, but I slowly grew aware of a tension, a chilling sensation infusing proceedings. Peter Man- delson had arrived. Holding court in a huge marquee, he stood surrounded by a crowd of young sharp-suited Blairites. As the cream of Labour researchers feasted on his every word, I decided the time had come to renew our acquaintance.

As I approached, his companions dis- persed. Mr Mandelson gazed at me benign- ly. Then I told him who I was. At first he looked surprised, even a little anxious. His upper lip, now bereft of mustache, broke into a snarl. I reminded him of the time he had fixed it for me to watch Question Time. The snarl remained. Then he issued a warning, a thinly veiled threat that froze me to the bone. let me give you a bit of advice,' he said. 'If you fight your campaign in an adult and mature way, it will do you a lot of good but, if you behave like a fool, it can only harm you, and you will never be heard of again.'

Ah, so this was to be his tactic, the spin doctor's equivalent of a horse's head in the bed. His Svengali eyes bore into mine. 'I know all about you,' he went on. Panic set in as I wondered if he had seen those old school reports. Then, to my astonishment, he offered a full description of a drinks party held a few weeks earlier, when I left my Central Office job. He even quoted from the speeches given to mark my depar- ture. This meant only one thing: Mr Man- delson had a Smith Square mole. Our next meeting took place last Octo- ber. Because I now work in public affairs I was compelled to attend the Labour con- ference. I knew the risks only too well. Mr Mandelson would be omnipresent.

I turned up at Blackpool's Imperial Hotel on the Sunday evening before the show began. After consulting my conference guide, I decided to look in on the Labour students' 25th anniversary party. Deter- mined not to appear conspicuous, I had dis- carded my pin-striped suit for an old pair of jeans and a baggy red sweater but, as it turned out, I was the only 'Labour student' who hadn't appeared in jacket and tie. I remarked to a pair of Armani-clad revellers how smart everyone looked. Their smug response was that suits had been stipulated on the invitation. 'The leader' was due to look in. New Labour, new dress code?

Frightened that my cover was about to be blown, it was tempting to cut and run, but then across the room I saw a girl who could only be described as stunning, the most glamorous twenty-something imag- inable. Deciding it would be criminal to leave such a vision to fend for herself with these grim young socialists, I sped to her side and bought her a drink. We started to chat. I let slip I was a gate- crasher. 'How did you come to be here?' I ventured. 'I'm the host,' was her luke- warm reply. This girl, who must remain nameless, then revealed herself as a full- time Walworth Road official, paid to run the Labour students.

I like a challenge. All was not lost: she had no idea that I was a Tory. 'Just play it cool,' I said to myself. The evening wore on, I bought her more drinks. Did she fancy a dance? I led her through the crowd. Looking back, I should have seen what was to come. Lost in the thrill of romance the old sixth sense had deserted me. As we approached the dance floor I completely failed to spot that the other (legitimate) party-goers were gripped by a Toronto Blessing-style rapture. The sea of cell-phones parted and there, centre stage, was Mr Mandelson. He and his acolytes had colonised the dance floor. Writhing like a serpent, he led his followers in a frenzied version of the `macarena'.

The music ended. Basking in applause, Mr Mandelson glanced my way. He looked puzzled. He did a rapid double-take. Then, with alarming purpose, he strode towards me. My companion beamed, delighted at the imminence of an audience with Peter. Gulping my drink, I started to explain, but it was all too late. Mr Mandelson peered at me, incredulous. 'What', he demanded, 'are you doing here?' Before I could speak he had turned to the girl, wagging a finger in my direction. 'Do you know who this is? It's my Tory opponent!' Obviously dis- traught at displeasing her hero, the girl of my dreams abruptly concluded our friend- ship. I haven't seen her since and she failed to respond to my Christmas card. I bet it was because he censors the mail.

Despite these unnerving encounters, I have developed a grudging respect for the Prince of Darkness. Recently though, hard as I try, I have failed to experience any further meetings. Perhaps my mistake is to look for him in Hartlepool. My offers to debate are consistently rebuffed; only last week he declined to share a plat- form at the local sixth form college. While I trudge the streets of Hartlepool, dis- tributing Dr Mawhinney's latest leaflets, my Labour opponent is ensconced in Millbank. I may not see him again until election night itself, when we take to the stage of the Borough Hall to hear final results announced. But perhaps before Miss, please remove the eyebrow ring, the septum ring, the tongue stud, the labret, the tragus ring, the earrings, the nostril stud, the nipple rings, the navel ring the . . . ' the polls close I might open the door and find Mr Mandelson has called to canvass me. After all, he knows our road very well indeed.