'Ed's speech was . . . ,"
Peter Mandelson paused, searching for les mots justes. "Practical . . . and . . . gritty." This wasn't the hatchet job of his recent Newsnight appearance, but even when the Prince of Darkness is on his best behaviour he can't help sounding as if he is damning the Labour leader with faint praise. Maybe Mandelson was just feeling a bit tetchy: the Imax cinema in the Science Museum that had been rammed for Miliband's speech in the morning was now barely half-full for his afternoon panel discussion.
The Inclusive Prosperity Conference had been organised by Mandelson's Policy Network as part of Labour's drive to prove how much it really, really loves business - don't mention the banks, the energy companies or the war - if not quite enough to have the lights switched on in the refreshment area, which remained in near total darkness throughout. Though this could have been all part of the plan to disguise the fact there were next to no people from business at the business conference. Politicians, journalists, lobbyists and quango bods were all out in force. Business leaders had better things to do, apparently. Like working.
Still, if you can't tell business leaders how much you love them in person, then telling other like-minded souls how much you love them is a decent substitute. And no one in the Labour party's history has ever been more pro-business than the extremely relaxed Lord Mandelson. His opening remarks were ones of concern. "Issues of fairness and equality are bigger questions now than they were for us in the 1990s," he said. "I think, perhaps, we took it for granted that continuing economic growth will bring about a rise in living standards without our needing to make quite so many interventions."
Mandelson also introduced Rachel Reeves, shadow work and pensions secretary, as "not so much a rising star" but as someone who was going to be around at the top for many years to come. That eulogy alone should have been enough to put Reeves on red alert. Sure enough, towards the end Mandelson brought out the stiletto, pressing Reeves on some of the details of Labour's business policies. Reeves looked panic-stricken as her eyes darted around, searching for an adviser to take over her brain.
Reeves is a woman who is only ever on message and the message for the day had been to be vague and nice to big business. Ad-libbing policy had never been part of the deal. She started mumbling platitudes. "Could you be a little more precise?" Mandelson persisted. Reeves tried, but she couldn't. The conference had its dead parrot sketch and Mandelson had another body. Thomas Cromwell would have been proud.