Three words sank Mandelson

by CHARLES REISS, Evening Standard

Just three words forced the resignation of Peter Mandelson, his closest friend claimed today.

Best-selling thriller writer Robert Harris said that the Home Office "record" of an alleged phone call by the then Dome Minister to Home Office Minister Mike O'Brien amounted only to a laconic scribble: "Mandelson. Hindujas. Naturalisation".

Mr Harris - and of course Mr Mandelson - believe this was absurdly flimsy evidence on which to convict him. The words lie at the heart of the sacked minister's fierce campaign to show that he is the innocent victim of a Government witch-hunt.

Mr Harris said he believed Mr Mandelson was "brow-beaten" out of the Cabinet. He claimed Mr Mandelson had been "branded the biggest liar in Britain" and that the former Ulster Secretary's first aim was to clear his name.

In a catalogue of charges threatening more trouble for Tony Blair and his closest aides, Mr Harris suggested that on the day Mr Mandelson was pushed out, Downing Street had acted in haste "driven by a media deadline" because lobby journalists were waiting for their regular morning briefing.

He also criticised the Prime Minister's press secretary, Alastair Campbell, for suggesting at the weekend that Mr Mandelson had become mentally "detached".

Mr Harris, questioned on the BBC's Today programme, said: "I obviously think it is a pretty poor thing to have a civil servant ruminating for 10 minutes about the mental stability of a former government minister. That seems strange, to put it mildly."

Mr Campbell has already denied that, in a briefing to Sunday paper political journal-ists, he had compared Mr Mandelson's state of mind to that of Ron Davies, the former Welsh Secretary sacked after a notorious walk on Clapham Common.

But the nature of the Home Office record, or lack of it, of a critical conversation looks more serious.

Mr Harris said: "As I understand it, it's not a tape recording, it's not a full minute of what took place. It's just a scrawled line."

Mr Blair himself was today struggling to avoid the loss of a second government minister over charges of misconduct - and to stop the rot spreading further.

Downing Street marched to the defence of Europe Minister Keith Vaz, declaring the Prime Minister would never "sack an innocent man".

But that pledge was under-mined by the continued protests from Mr Mandelson that last week a kangaroo court at No 10 had done exactly that.

The Tories and sections of the media are baying for more blood, saying that Mr Vaz must go over his links with the millionaire Hinduja brothers, now facing possible corruption charges in India.

The Government's troubles are deepened by the continued conflict with Mr Mandelson, as senior ministers and Blair allies, from Home Secretary Jack Straw to press secretary Alastair Campbell, attacked the former Ulster Secretary's honesty and, apparently, questioned his state of mind.

There is, however, consolation for the Prime Minister in the fact that , almost unnoticed in the Westminster hurly-burly, the only opinion poll taken since the Mandelson affair and published at the weekend has shown Labour's lead over the Tories as solid as ever.

Mr Mandelson is said to be out of the country, taking a short break. On Saturday night, he was at a birthday party at Mr Campbell's home in north London, with both sides, it was said, determined to put their public problems aside for a while.

The next day, however, brought Mr Mandelson's own denial, in The Sunday Times, that he had lied or misled anyone over his telephone call to Immigration Minister Mike O'Brien concerning the quest by Srichand Hinduja for British citizenship.

Mr Campbell is also in the headlines for having told reporters that Mr Mandelson had become "detached".

The attacks intensified through yesterday as it became clear, to the consternation of ministers, that Mr Mandelson is not going to go quietly.

Mr Straw let it be known that he had told the Prime Minister that he had personally reminded Mr Mandelson only days earlier of his telephone conversation with Mr O'Brien - the call Mr Mandelson then repeatedly failed to reveal.

Another cabinet member, Clare Short, went further. She told BBC Radio Four: "As far as I'm concerned, Peter Mandelson went last Wednesday and he went because he's got problems with the truth.

"He's resigned because he wasn't accurate, did not speak the truth and let himself down and the Government."

Bitingly Ms Short added that as far as she was concerned, Mr Mandelson was just one among many and went on: "There is a world out there. Peter Mandelson is over."

The former minister gave no sign of heeding that verdict, maintaining that he believed the inquiry, set up by Mr Blair and headed by QC Sir Anthony Hammond, will clear his name. Whichever way the verdict goes, it will pose more problems for the Prime Minister.

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