by Dan Hodges
Michael Dugher is not the new Peter Mandelson. We know this because last week Dugher told us so.
He didn’t just come out and issue a bald statement to that effect, obviously. That would just have been plain odd:
“Which senior former Labour politician aren’t you going to be tonight Michael”?
“Well, tonight Matthew I’m not going to be Peter Mandelson”.
No, the new shadow minister without portfolio was responding to a tweet from “eyespymp”, the voyeuristic web site that tracks and broadcasts the movement of our Parliamentary representatives as the go about their daily lives.
According to our eyespy eavesdropper, Dugher was overheard “telling someone he’s going to be ‘Ed’s Mandelson’”. To which the member for Barnsley East responded with a characteristically blunt: “Load of bollocks. I’m currently at home with my kids”.
The kids’ gain is Labour’s loss. A new Peter Mandelson is exactly what we need. A Prince of darkness. Master of the dark arts.
Ed’s got lots of masters of the pastel-coloured arts. Tom Baldwin is an accomplished spinner. But he’s not a real attack dog. He tries. He affects a kick ass, access denied, off the guest list, card marked, co-operation withdrawn, lead-lined boots demeanor. But his heart’s really not in it. He’d hate anyone to know it, but he’s actually quite nice.
Then there is Stewart Wood, another shadow minister without portfolio, who is Ed’s “political mastermind”. Wood has a sharp mind, and a few tricks up his sleeve. He’s got a reputation in Westminster for being a straight shooter. Though if he has to, he knows how to bend the odd bullet round the wall. But he’s also got a serious flaw. Again, he’s quite nice. In an interview he gave to Suzie Mackenzie, Gordon Brown’s biographer, Mackenzie recounts:
“Wood acknowledged that the routine rudeness – the ‘just Gordon’ behaviour – had begun to trouble him. It became ‘more important’ after Brown became prime minister. He suggested that the ‘apologies’ they made for Brown had gone on too long. ‘How you deal as an individual with human beings is a core part of the job’, he said”.
How you deal with human beings? That’s all very good. But it’s hardly Prince of Darkness material is it?
Not that we need to be gender-specific about this sort of stuff. After all, there’s Lucy Powell, still Ed’s acting chief of staff. I used to work with Lucy in Westminster. She’s sharp and she’s bright. But, yeah, you guessed it. She’s quite nice.
That’s the trouble. They’re all nice people. Ayesha and Polly and Bob. And that guy who sounds a bit like a Scandinavian washing machine designer: Torsten Henricson-Bell.
And of course, Ed himself. People really like Ed. Well, his brother’s still a bit pissed with him obviously. But everyone else does. “He listens”, said one Labour MP.
And that makes a refreshing change. People like me may hanker for the machismo and testosterone fuelled days of the New Labour ascendancy. But even I have to concede that on occasion things went a little far. “You have to remember, you only have to break one of their legs, not both of them”, Tony Blair once told an overzealous aide. But everyone knew he didn’t mean it. Both legs had to broken, on principle.
Niceness is good. As is inclusivity. People will always go that extra mile for those they like. Steve Norris once told me how Margaret Thatcher always placed a premium on the human aspects of her party leadership; always careful to ask after the children and spouses of her MPs, and generous with her time if there were issues involving them. That generosity didn’t often extend beyond the Parliamentary Conservative party, but it stood her in good stead when the going got tough.
But it’s also true that, unless you have a bit of steel in your operation, the going will quickly get very tough indeed. And that’s what Ed currently lacks. A lurker. A shape-shifter. Someone to glide out of the shadows, dispense some hard-headed advice, then slide off back into the gloom.
Peter was very good at that. The gliding I mean. He was excellent at the advice bit, clearly. But he also had this ability to emerge out of nowhere, breeze towards you as if he was on casters, then turn and breeze away again. I once jokingly asked an aide if he was on roller-skates. The aide didn’t joke back.
Okay, the gliding bit is optional. But the hard-headed advice is essential. Politics is all about grace under pressure; the ability to make the right decision when the chips are down. That was Mandelson’s gift. “The thing about Peter”, said someone who had worked with him, and not entirely enjoyed the experience, “is that when you were presented with a real problem he would always seem to come up with a line instantaneously. And invariably, it would be the right line”.
That’s what Ed needs. Someone who, when presented with the tough, borderline decisions, comes up with the right call. “Ed. There are some people camping on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. They’re defecating inside it, daubing graffiti on the walls and abusing British Legion poppy sellers. Should we back ‘em?”. Enter prince or princess of darkness. “No Ed. You shouldn’t”. Exit prince or princess, stage left.
Is Dugher our black prince?
He has the credentials. He used to work for Gordon Brown. And lived to tell the tale.
If he got punched, he wore the scars with impunity. And discretion. Which, coincidently, is important. If you want to be a master of the dark arts you must learn to keep your counsel. Until there’s a closely fought leadership election, at which point you publish your memoirs, spill the beans, and scupper yet another leadership challenge by David Miliband.
“He’s got the relationships with the lobby, but he’s a very different character”, says one close Dugher acquaintance. “He loves a good lunch, but he goes home to his kids”. But is he nefarious? Capable of real skullduggery? Does Michael possess something of the night? “Well, to be honest, and I know this isn’t quite what you’re looking to write, but no”.
And that’s the problem. Dugher is nice. Ed is nice. The whole of our benighted party is nice.
The schemers, the plotters, the assassins, the poisoners, the agent provocateurs. They have been banished. Or fled. Embraced by big tobacco, or the arms industry or the Jeremy Kyle show.
And what’s left? People of honesty. Decency. Principle. People who say “Ed should be Ed”, and let him.
This is what twelve months of Ed Miliband’s leadership has done for Labour. Transformed us into the “nice party”. It is a tragedy.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.