Amid the genteel surroundings of the Park Lane Hotel ballroom last night at the CBI’s annual black-tie dinner, Lord Mandelson was at his waspish best.
His keynote speech was ostensibly about Britain’s role in Europe, but he couldn’t resist throwing in a few barbed remarks about his Labour colleagues, both past and present. Departing from his pre-prepared script, the former business secretary had this to say about Gordon Brown, the man he served so closely in the dying days of the Labour government:
I can’t remember which who the member of the government was who claimed we abolished boom and bust. Well, we abolished boom…
Apart from that, the rest of the speech was relatively straight down the line, although there were some rather oblique references to weaknesses in Labour’s current economic policy. Mandelson:
As a country I believe we need to make bigger choices than either the government or the opposition are offering to us at the moment.
But the fireworks were yet to come. Unexpectedly, as dinner drew to a close, the sprightly peer jumped back on stage and offered to take questions from the audience. And he quickly returned to his theme of the failings of both parties to offer a credible economic vision:
The whole argument in Britain has in my view become a little facile.
On the whole, he seemed to come down in favour of George Osborne’s judgement that a significant debt-fuelled fiscal stimulus would backfire:
I don’t think you can really take a chance, I think markets, whose confidence in us to pay back what we borrow – that confidence is the determining factor. If that was seriously damaged by a lurch in policy I think that would be quite a risk which I would not blame the chancellor for refusing to take.
And then it was my turn to ask a question. What is Ed Balls was getting wrong, I wanted to know. Mandelson promptly turned to the rest of the room and asked “Are there any journalists here?” When I confessed I was, he asked if he was on the record. When I said he was he replied:
Nothing. I agree with everything Ed Balls is doing.
I also happen to like him… well, more than I used to.
He then told us with a smile he was going “off record” before giving this answer in front of 500 assembled guests (emphasis mine):
I would develop a slightly less defensive and more forthright analysis or understanding of the structural problems in our economy and why they weren’t completely eradicated by the Labour government. I would be a little more candid about the past.
I would put the emphasis less on whether we are going too far, too fast, not fast enough, on deficit reduction, and move the debate onto the future of the economy.
The whole argument about whether we are cutting too far too fast is about the past. It is rather predictable party political stuff for over the dispatch box. It is a bit tiring to the public.
Everyone knows we are in a heck of a bad way in the economy. Quite a lot more pain is going to be experienced. What we should be saying is, “This is the light at the end of the tunnel. This is where we should be heading.”
We need to explain how we would retool and redevelop our economy. We need a politician who will fight on that rather than fight about the past or fight over what is fair and what is not fair. The Labour party has got to offer more than that.
If the Labour party is going to go into the next election fighting it on social justice rather than economic transformation and prosperity it will be limited in its appeal. We need to tell people in the country how we are going to earn our way and make our living in the country rather than how we are going to redistribute our money from the very rich. Sometimes they make the mistake of talking about that too much.
Mandelson went on to suggest he would relish a comeback to front bench politics. With helpful comments like these, I would guess such a return is a long way away.