The return of Peter Mandelson to Gordon Brown's Cabinet — almost certainly as a Lord, no less, has been greeted with howls of derision, disbelief and contempt by the Press. The Return of Lord Sleaze, The Return of Lord Spin, and more sinisterly and magnificently, The Return of the Master of the Dark Arts, are just some of the headlines being bandied about.
You’d think Mandelson was the offspring of Beelzebub and Darth Vader.
Except we in Northern Ireland can tell a different story about the new Business Minister and, perhaps, give an inkling into the beleaguered PM's thinking in bringing him back to the centre of British politics.
Mandelson gets the job done.
As Northern Ireland Secretary, Mandelson was instrumental in getting the peace process back on track after Mo Mowlam's ‘personal' approach left the negotiations teetering on the brink of collapse.
Unionists — stuffy shirts that they are — were not only discomfited by Mowlam's frankness but felt that she was siding with the nationalist/republican perspective and that they were not really being listened to.
A serious politican — and not a PR whirlwind — Mandelson smoothed ruffled feathers and salvaged the situation.
Rather than patronise unionists with a “there there, it’ll be alright”, he genuinely understood that community's hurts. I headed up this newspaper’s successful campaign to win decent compensation for early RUC widows, and Mandelson proved compassionate and fair, helping see to it that the women got justice. After meetings with Mandelson, the widows would tell me how he sympathised and empathised.
Because of his absurd, panicky sacking by Tony Blair over the passport affair, Mandelson was not around for the endgame, but he was instrumental in getting all the recalcitrant Northern Irish ducks — bar the odd quack — in a row.
If this was the master of dark arts in practice, then maybe we could have done with a few more of them. It’s just a hunch, but I suspect most ‘ordinary' politicians would have botched the job.
Mandelson even negotiated the potential drawbacks in his personal life with an unerring knack for reading the emotional weather of the public. For example, his Brazilian boyfriend, Reinaldo da Silva, was turned into a small PR plus — an example that we are not all yahoos who foam at the mouth at the mere idea of homosexuality.
Even his acquiring of Bobby the Labrador showed a deft touch. What could easily have been a sickbag gimmick and come across as a contrived attempt to make him seem just ‘one of us’ was never overplayed. Yes, it upped his ‘genuine guy’ rating, but it didn’t quite make him an ordinary bloke, rather a politician with more than one side. And that’s a neatly calibrated trick when you think about it.
While top man at Hillsborough Castle, he brought a touch of glamour to a political culture severely in need of it, as well as being competent, determined and mastering a complicated brief. He also showed tact, personal diplomacy and a sense of what the public will or will not wear. Not qualities as common as we like to think, they also seem to be the same sort of approach he brought to his role as European Trade Commissioner, where, even his critics admit, he was a success.
It may be precisely because Mandelson's accomplishments — Northern Ireland and Europe — have lain just outside the myopic vision of the British media that the lazy ‘Master of Darkness' and ‘Lord Sleaze' sterotypes go largely unchallenged.
Of course, his appointment could yet be Brown's last desperate throw of the dice and doomed to fail as too little, too late. It's a huge ask of Mandelson to turn the electoral tide. (Forget the Business Minister moniker, that's his real job.)
But if you were in the impossibly tight corner that Brown is in, who’d you want by your side? Darling? Straw? Jacqui Smith (the fact that I have to give you her first name speaks volumes)? Milliband? Blears? Politicians who, without exception, cast absolutely no shadow in the public's imagination. Or Peter Mandelson? A proven winner (being a key brain behind reforming the Labour Party and winning three general elections is not a CV to be sniffed at) and an undoubted heavy hitter who just might come up with something?
Which, when you really think about it, is no choice at all.