Is Peter Mandelson really a strategy consultant?

As a journalist I have followed one simple rule: anything Peter Mandelson wants to conceal is something that the British people need to know.

The rule was established over twenty years ago when as an MP he took a whacking great loan from a fellow MP, Geoffrey Robinson, and decided to conceal this from his constituents, from the House of Commons, from his party leader, and from the general public. He maintained the concealment when he and Robinson both became ministers. Its eventual revelation caused his first resignation from government. He made a comeback but had to resign a second time, as the result of excessive “spin” in his response to charges of improper conduct as minister in charge of the Millennium Dome. He disappeared to the EU for some years as Trade Commissioner, but was brought back to government by a desperate Gordon Brown. He gave him a peerage, which allowed him to exercise a great deal of power without being elected.

Throughout his career, Mandelson has faced regular questions about his relationships with special interests or rich and influential people and about the sources of his wealth, which is far greater than can be accounted for from his public career.

In 2010 after the voters ejected him from government, Lord Mandelson launched a consultancy called Global Counsel of which he is still Chairman. Its prime asset then and now is his experience of politics and government, where he has enduring contacts, in the UK and overseas. However, when he fulfilled his obligation as a peer to declare this role in the public Register of Lords’ Interests he called the firm a “strategic advice consultancy”, and he has continued to do so to this day.

The Lords authorities have accepted this for over six years, although all the publicly available evidence suggests that the firm is really a public affairs consultancy. They may have done this for practical reasons. The poor old Registrar now has over 800 peers to police because party leaders have packed the House with cronies and donors, and he does not have the resources to look behind any individual peer’s declaration. But the House is rather an unworldly place and its members and staff may not know what a recognized, professional strategy consultant is expected to do.

I have taken advice from professional associations and other authorities who tell me that strategic management is a six-step process:

  1. Identifying a client’s current mission, goals and strategies
  2. Analysing the external environment (opportunities and threats)
  3. Analysing the internal environment (strengths and weaknesses)
  4. Formulating strategies
  5. Implementing strategies
  6. Evaluating results

A genuine strategy consultant will provide advice to clients on at least the first four steps of this process. However, on the evidence of its website Global Counsel is equipped only to help clients with steps 2) and 3) and these only in relation to the narrow scope of public policy issues and relationships with governments, lawmakers, regulators, the media and public opinion.

Global Counsel is not a member of any of the professional bodies which represent strategic consultants or the management consulting industry as a whole. In company with Lord Mandelson himself, the experience of its team is overwhelmingly concentrated in government, politics or the media. None have worked as a “strategy consultant” anywhere else. The firm asks for public affairs experience in the people it recruits. The firm publishes commentaries on public affairs, presumably to show off its abilities in this area to potential clients.

The firm is very secretive about its clients, but three published media reports on its activities all indicate assignments in the sphere of public affairs. It helped the much-criticized company Asia Pulp and Paper respond to a new EU directive designed to combat illegal logging. It tried to obtain a contract to improve the public reputation of the Maldive Islands government based on existing work for unnamed investors in the islands. It also helped the British Bankers’ Association prepare its response to Brexit.

Very recently the firm acquired as Deputy Chairman another peer of great experience in business and public life and with a high reputation for probity: Lord (Paul) Myners. He listed Global Counsel on the Register of Lords’ Interests as a “public policy and regulatory advice organisation”. This is in line with the firm’s part-owner, the giant communications conglomerate WPP plc. It lists Global Counsel in its family of companies under the heading of “policy and regulation.”

Lord Myners and WPP thus identify Global Counsel as a public affairs consultancy. They are surely right, and Lord Mandelson is surely wrong to suggest otherwise. There is nothing wrong with public affairs consultancy. It is an honourable calling and Global Counsel is probably very good at it. However, the firm should not be shy about citing its clients and its achievements for them (it is the best way of getting new business): Lord Mandelson, as its Chairman, should help them in this. Keeping his clients secret simply encourages people to think that some of them might be embarrassing or even unethical.

Does it matter if Peter Mandelson has made a false claim about his firm in the Lords Register?

From a market point of view, probably not. No client ever chose a strategy consultant or public affairs consultant on the basis of the Lords Register.

However, for the general public any false claim matters a great deal. Peers have a duty to give correct information on the Register and they should not use it to give themselves a status they have not earned, whether as strategy consultants or rocket scientists or plumbers.

Moreover, Lord Mandelson has resisted attempts to make him reveal the clients of his consultancy Global Counsel for over five years, and has withheld them from the Register of Lords Interests, even though their disclosure appears to be required. This is partly because of a general obligation to declare anything which might influence his conduct in Parliament (para 11 of the Code of Conduct for peers) and partly because peers are specifically required to disclose any clients for whom they supply “public affairs advice or services” (para 61 of the Guide).

The Guide has always given peers two potential escapes from disclosure. One is to say that they and their consultancies are not in the public affairs business. Unfortunately, the Guide has never defined the term “public affairs,” so an unscrupulous peer gets a little room to argue that it should not apply to him and his consultancy. That, I am sure, is why Lord Mandelson describes Global Counsel as a “strategic advice consultancy”. I believe he has never had any right to claim this, and that in any case it is a distinction without a difference, since strategy consultants have to make judgements on public affairs issues as part of their service to clients.

It is important to remember that the House of Lords has never required more disclosure than the bare name of a peer’s client. If Lord Mandelson were a doctor or a therapist, or if he and the firm had some highly specialized focus it might damage a client to be publicly identified. But neither of these things is true. It reveals nothing about a client or its business to be identified as a buyer of public affairs advice or services from Lord Mandelson and his firm, no more than revealing that it buys its stationery from Staples. I see no motive for a client to withhold its bare name from the Register. Several have been identified in the media (one by Lord Mandelson himself!) without any complaint from the clients concerned. So, one has to assume that it is Lord Mandelson who holds the motive for withholding their names. This naturally prompts the assumption that some of the clients are embarassing to him, perhaps even unethical.

If you would like to see Lord Mandelson’s entry for Global Counsel corrected, particularly if you are a recognized strategy consultant, you should write to the Lords Commissioner for Standards, Lucy Scott-Moncrieff CBE, at the House of Lords, London SW1A 0PW. You should mention paragraph 13 of the Code of Conduct for peers (“Members are responsible for ensuring that their registered interests are accurate and up-to-date.”) You should not on any account mention my name because she thinks I am a vexatious complainer and she may be right.

Richard Heller is an author and journalist. He exposed the Great Surfball Scandal in 1998, when Peter Mandelson, as Minister in charge, falsely claimed that the Millennium Dome would contain an attraction called “Surfball: the sport of the 21st century.” His latest book (with Peter Oborne) is White On Green celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, published by Simon & Schuster.