Mr Mandelson kept on digging until the hole became his political grave
One might have thought that he would have learned his lesson. Peter Mandelson was lucky to return to office only a few months after the mortgage fiasco; politicians have been destroyed by lesser offences. But during his brief exile, as he brooded over the whole matter, he really ought to have drawn the obvious conclusion. As Richard Nixon, Jonathan Aitken and the Clintons could have told him, and as he should have realised once his unusual mortgage unravelled, the coverup can prove more serious than the original offence. Mr Mandelson's cover-up has ended his political career. There will be no second comeback. Indeed, there is no point in his staying on in the Commons.
Yet it was all so unnecessary. There was no need for him to run into trouble over the Hindujas. All he needed to do was to issue the following statement: 'In 1998, to the best of my knowledge, the Hinduja brothers were highly successful entrepreneurs. They had not only invested in this country and created jobs; they had also devoted time and money to good causes. On that basis. I believed that they deserved their British passports. Sir Edward Heath, Sir Paddy Ashdown and other distinguished figures in public life took the same view as I did. Like them, I acted in good faith throughout.'
Had Mandy said that, it would have been end of story. There would no doubt have been small-print grumblings and select-committee questionings. Some awkward characters would have wondered whether there might have been a connection between the subcontinental brothers' willingness to squander a million quid on the platitude zone, the facile zone, the candyfloss zone or whatever, and Mr Mandelson's support for their passport application. But that is the stuff of page 4 column 8, not of roaring condemnatory headlines in every newspaper. Once again, Peter Mandelson had talked himself into a crisis, and this time it was the terminal crisis.
As late as Tuesday evening, he was persisting in untruth. This was his account of his conversation with Mike O'Brien, the Home Office minister. 'The facts speak for themselves. I acted in an entirely proper way. There was no question of me getting any preferential treatment for anyone who wanted a British passport. . . . I simply wanted some information for an individual. I wasn't able to get it myself. I communicated it to a Home Office minister.' Tell that to the Marines, The fractured syntax was the first clue to the greater stress being inflicted on the truth. If Peter Mandelson himself could not get information, how could he have communicated it to Mr O'Brien? He did indeed make his call to communicate information: the information that he was interested in the Hindujas' welfare. In June 1998, that was more than information. That was an instruction, as Mr O'Brien would have been well aware.
Mr Mandelson would have adopted a characteristic tone: polite and silken, but allowing a glimpse of the steel blade wrapped in the silk. In those days, Mr Mandelson was not only the Dome minister. He was Tony Blair's chief of staff and principal enforcer. As far as Mr O'Brien knew, the PM himself might have been concerning himself with the Hindujas, for if that was the case, Mr Mandelson would have been the messenger. In those days, any junior minister who sought promotion — or even survival — would have known that when Mr Mandelson was on the phone, it was wise to stand to attention at the other end of the line. No question of me getting preferential treatment.' Ho, ho, Peter; ho, ho, ho. It is extraordinary that a man of such limitless cunning should have an equally limitless belief in others' credulity.
Peter Mandelson began by denying that the conversation took place. He then misrepresented its nature and purpose. He was in a hole, and he went on digging until it became his political grave. As late as Wednesday morning, it seemed that he would probably hang on, if only because the PM would expend a lot of political capital on his behalf. But he was in a post whose holder must be trustworthy. He did not deserve to survive. He had compromised himself once too often.
When Nicholas Ridley had to resign as a result of an interview he gave to this magazine, Charles Powell said that Margaret Thatcher never ceased to be astonished by her colleagues' capacity to get her into difficulty. Mr Blair is now experiencing a similar exasperation. Tony Blair had planned that the Labour party would tell some lies of its own on Tuesday, about the Tories' so-called plans to cut public spending by .E16 billion. But this carefully crafted mendacity was swept from the front pages by Peter's prevarications.
In August 1997, Mr Mandelson was left in charge while the Blairs were on holiday. But he spent most of his time in turf disputes with John Prescott or picking quarrels with junior radio reporters. When Mr Blair returned, he said that he 'wondered whether Peter was as good as we had thought'. That will now be his epitaph.
But Mr Blair is the last person entitled to write it. In his casual attitude to the truth and his belief that facts mean just what he chooses them to mean, Mr Mandelson was no more than his master's faithful servant. This is a government founded on the premise that the medium is the message. It uses words, not to reflect reality, but to create soundbites so as to secure an immediate political objective, an infamous example being 'prisoners kept in unless violence is given up for good', a guarantee which the PM gave to the Ulster Unionists in May 1998.
Mr Blair believes that he is entitled to say anything he likes, and that it is grossly unfair to quote him back at himself. He also believes in rewriting history, most recently over fox-hunting. He claimed to have voted for a ban. Untrue; he had not voted. He claimed that the Bill was defeated in the House of Lords by Tory hereditary peers. Doubly untrue: that Bill never reached the Lords, and, when any such measure does so, Labour life peers will play a crucial role in opposing it. Then there was his attempt to stow away from Newcastle to the Bahamas; there were no such flights. He claimed to have watched Jackie Milburn play for Newcastle; Milburn left that club when young Tony was four years old.
On Desert Island Discs Mr Blair announced that his favourite pieces of music were Barber's Adagio for Strings and a piece by Francisco Tarrega, But when he appeared on a pop-music station, it became a pop song, 'Where the Streets Have No Name'. Perhaps the pop group might write another version: 'Where the Man has No Shame'.
This is a Prime Minister without a core of values and principles, who therefore lacks a moral compass. From audience to audience, he will happily reinvent himself on the blithe assumption that his audiences are all too thick to compare notes. Well, they have now compared their notes on Peter Mandelson. One day, they will do the same for Tony Blair, and it might be sooner than he thinks. Mr Blair is no more moral than Peter Mandelson; he is merely better at keeping the Eleventh Commandment.