IN THE glow of a warm Caribbean night, accompanied by one of the world’s richest men, on board his 413-ft luxury yacht (complete with two helicopters, glass-bottomed bar and seven smaller vessels), it was a perfect kind of evening for Peter Mandelson.
The EU Trade Commissioner has always enjoyed the finer things in life. And, invariably, they have got him into trouble. This weekend, the former Prince of Darkness faces yet another growing storm over his apparent weakness for the perks of his job.
Mandelson has only been at the European Union for six months. But already it seems he is stirring up the kind of controversy which will be very familiar to those who have watched his career from Britain.
It emerged in German newspaper Die Welt last week that Mandelson had enjoyed a four-day trip to the Caribbean over New Year, which he had tagged on to a working trip to Trinidad and Guyana in January.
Mandelson’s spokeswoman insisted that he had paid for the extra costs of the visit himself, and insisted that it was private. Only then did it emerge that, while there, he had met Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, during a drinks party on the billionaire’s yacht, Octopus.
The cocktail chat could be written off as an unimportant social event, except that Microsoft is currently locked in a legal battle with the Commission over its decision last year to fine the firm 497m after finding it guilty of breaking EU competition rules.
As a result, Mandelson now finds himself facing claims from some MEPs of a "serious lapse in judgment".
Post-Hinduja and post-Robinson, such accusations against Mandelson have an ominous feel. The trouble for this remarkable yet flawed politician is that - as in Britain - his troubles in Brussels are already growing.
It has not been an easy few months for Tony Blair’s former right-hand man. In September, he was believed to have been looking at a plush 580,000 mansion in Brussels’ Rue des Six Jeunes Hommes (Six Young Men Street). But the deal fell through, and Mandelson is still living in temporary apartments.
His lifestyle too has been toned down. "He keeps himself to himself," said one source. "You don’t see him around the restaurants or bars in town. It’s like he realises he is on a last chance and has kept his head down."
And just as Mandelson appears to have shunned Brussels’ diplomatic canap trail, so he has so far dispensed with the city’s normal ambassadorial niceties. His predecessor, Pascal Lamy, was known for his silken diplomatic charms. Mandelson, so far, has been more like a brick through a French window.
Despite his claims to act as a "dedicated team player", observers insist that he has in fact fallen back into his old ways. This means that, for all his community spirit, he tends to act in the best interests of Peter Mandelson.
Mandelson built a career at Westminster on news management and he has taken the tools of his trade to Brussels: disgruntled correspondents privately confirm that the trade commissioner spins stories and hands the best to those journalists who prove themselves willing to write about him in favourable terms.
"He is getting a big reputation for spinning," confirmed Martin Callanan, Tory MEP for north-east England, "and rubbing people up the wrong way.
"Every British MEP knew all about his behaviour before he got here, but I think a lot of our colleagues have been surprised at exactly what he is like. He doesn’t seem able to be entirely straight with the facts."
In one such select interview last year, Mandelson launched forth on what has become a trademark since arriving in Brussels: Yankee-baiting. George W Bush’s antagonism towards Europe was an "aberration", he declared in a newspaper interview. He went on to point out US "vulnerability" when it goes it alone in foreign affairs. Then, not long after, he managed to get involved in a bitter row with US trade representative Robert Zoellick over the EU-US dispute on aircraft subsidies to Boeing and Airbus.
Again, the American dispute centred on spin after Mandelson floated proposals in the Times and the Washington Post. Zoellick openly reminisced about the good old days prior to Mandelson under Lamy, while the whole affair threatens to end up with the World Trade Organisation. Mandelson is blamed not only for obstructing hopes of a resolution to a damaging trade dispute, but also for performing the previously unthinkable trick of uniting a French Socialist and an American Republican against him.
"Zoellick is complaining that he used to get on fine with the last guy," Callanan added. "Mandelson has obviously upset him. He seems to think he can tell the Americans what to do. But I think his biggest problem is that he’s always telling people he can do things when he really can’t deliver."
Mandelson is also accused of managing to upset some of the world’s poorest countries during negotiations aimed at guaranteeing them more favourable trading links with the EU. "Totally unrealistic," was how one socialist MEP described the plans for partnership agreements with African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) nations.
Mandelson’s colleagues in the UK government have indicated their opposition to foisting demands for liberalisation of markets on ACPs in return for offering closer trade links with the EU, and MEPs claim he has pushed this view during negotiations with individual nations.
But campaigners, aid agencies and critics suspect the commission will nonetheless demand that any agreements incorporate market liberalisation, and the inclusion of agreements in new areas such as investment, competition and government procurement.
"I suppose we should say Peter is acting nobly in pushing this position," an MEP added. "But no one seriously believes he can get it through the commission. So he’s really building up hopes that have no chance of being realised." Peter Mandelson as a man who can’t do right for doing wrong? It hardly has the ring of truth about it. His enemies prefer to see him as a victim, once again, of his own arrogance, of hubris, and an addiction to taking himself too seriously.
And his friends back home? Two weeks ago, as Tony Blair was in the final stages of election planning, his slender ally was spirited back into Downing Street on a quiet Wednesday afternoon for strategy talks. "I can’t say I saw him, but I’m sure he was there," one Blair aide said, "because one of our most senior policy people spent the afternoon stomping around and saying ‘f***ing Mandelson’."
Mandelson may not be the first Labour politician to get into trouble over a controversial New Year holiday, but - with grumbles in Brussels about his style growing ever louder - Yachtage, just like Villagate, could yet prove to have serious consequences.
From Prince of Darkness to Labour comeback king
1985 - Mandelson is appointed as Labour’s director of communications under Neil Kinnock.
1986 - Plays an instrumental role in the rebranding of the Labour party by inventing the party’s red rose and ousting its wild militant wing.
1987 - The newly christened Prince of Darkness runs Labour’s unsuccessful but widely praised election campaign
1990 - Quits his job as communications director and is selected to run as Labour candidate in Hartlepool.
1992 - Elected as MP and enters the House of Commons for the first time.
1994 - Plays a crucial role in pushing Tony Blair towards the leadership following the death of John Smith. His public espousal of Blair over Brown swung the party Blair’s way.
1997 - His close relationship with Blair sees him being appointed as Labour’s general election campaign director.
MAY 1997 - He is rewarded with a job as minister without portfolio after helping the party storm to its record election victory. Oversees the doomed Millennium Dome project.
JUNE 1998 - He is appointed as Secretary of State for trade and industry.
DECEMBER 1998 - Mandelson is forced to quit after it was revealed he had bought a home in Notting Hill in 1996 with the assistance of an interest-free loan of 373,000 from Geoffrey Robinson, a millionaire Labour MP who was subject to an inquiry into his business dealings by Mandelson’s department.
OCTOBER 1999 - After just 10 months out of government he was appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, replacing the popular Mo Mowlam.
JANUARY 2001 - He is forced to quit for a second time, accused of phoning Home Office minister Mike O’Brien on behalf of Srichand Hinduja, an Indian millionaire, who was applying for a British passport.
MAY 2001 - Makes an emotional post-poll speech after being re-elected as MP for Hartlepool. He declared: "I’m a fighter, not a quitter."
AUGUST 2004 - Appointed as EU trade commissioner, securing reputation as the ‘comeback king’ of British politics.
NOVEMBER 2004 - Takes up his role at the European Union after giving up his seat in the House of Commons.
MARCH 2005 - Mandelson becomes embroiled in a sleaze row after he admits he spent New Year’s Eve at a party thrown on the yacht of Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen.