Paradise found: Peter Mandelson recalls growing up on the Suburb

In the first of a series of interviews celebrating the centenary of Hampstead Garden Suburb, politician Peter Mandelson talks to Katie Davies about his childhood home and influences HE famously uttered the words I m a fighter not a quitter when he won

In the first of a series of interviews celebrating the centenary of Hampstead Garden Suburb, politician Peter Mandelson talks to Katie Davies about his childhood home and influences

HE famously uttered the words "I'm a fighter not a quitter" when he won re-election to Hartlepool, but Peter Mandelson is sounding rather resigned today.

Perhaps it is the fact we have spent the first half of our conversation discussing his childhood in Hampstead Garden Suburb - the innocent years before that D:Ream song, that loan or the doomed Millennium Dome.

Or maybe it's because the man who is supposed to be keeping schtum in Brussels has seen his name splashed across the British press again.

First came his call for a competition for the Labour leadership, rubbing Brown's boys up the wrong way, and joining his Suburb neighbour Charles Clarke to catch doe-eyed David Miliband in the headlights.

Then, in a political head spinner, he allegedly turned on Blair for offering too many incentives to the Republicans in the Northern Ireland peace process.

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And then, just when we thought we'd had enough, the Prince of Darkness announces he wants another go at the Commons and plans to run again, sending the whole of the Labour Party, not least those in his former seat, into disarray.

But today, when I steal him away from Brussels for our quick chat, it sounds like the closest thing to the fires of hell he can conjure up is a cup of cocoa - and the only return he wants to make is to his childhood home and the chic Primrose Hill residence of his adult years.

"I don't know what this rumour of running again is based on," he scoffs. "I haven't said I am, so I think it's the papers just filling space. I don't tend to go backwards - I want new things in my life."

These new things will be far from the thankless world of the European Union he says is the "whipping boy" for national politicians to pass the buck of bad decisions onto.

"I am not going to seek re-nomination to the European Commission. After five years of doing this job I can't see myself doing this particular role for another five. It is too punishing.

"I live quite a rootless existence in this position, not least because of all the travel, and I want to settle and remake my home - which inevitably I haven't been able to do here. I want to rediscover my roots in north London."

Mandelson has reasons to sentimentalise his departure, but his decision to avoid reappointment is more likely to do with the fact that neither Brown nor Cameron will be fighting his corner when commissioners are re-chosen in 2009.

However, it is fitting that in the month of his resignation he will return to the Suburb for its centenary, the place where his activism began.

"My father was very active in the residents' association. He was a hawk and I have vivid memories of him going around the Suburb looking out for infringements and departures from the high standards that were demanded then, and I hope are still demanded now," he recalls wistfully.

"Hampstead Garden Suburb was a children's paradise - playing, hiding, exploring and making friends.

"My nursery school and scout club were at the Free Church Hall, my primary school on Willifield Green, I began my acting career at The Institute. My whole upbringing was framed around the Suburb - my friendships and values

"At the end of my days there when I left for Africa, where I worked before going to Oxford University, I was taking it for granted because it was quiet and quite lifeless for a young man in search of excitement.

"In future years going back, before my mother left our family home, I loved its calm and architecture. Anyone who cares about the environment, planning and historical space will know what I admire about the Suburb."

The grandson of cabinet minister Herbert Morrison, Mandelson was unlikely to escape politics and in the socialist utopia of the Suburb, he was equally unlikely to crawl out a Tory.

"I remember in 1964, after the general election, standing on Southway in front of Harold Wilson's house in a sort of trance," he explains. "There was a CBS anchorman standing in front of the house and on the other side of the road I stood there looking at him as he spoke into a huge camera. There was such a sense of excitement that our new prime minister was going to start a life at his new residence, Number 10 Downing Street."

"My parents were very politically active - even giving up their house to branch meetings - so the Labour Party flowed through our sitting room.

"One of my earliest memories was using my tricycle to race between the polling station and the Free Church Hall round the corner to North Square. I used to race very quickly, taking voting figures from our supporters in the community.

"If anyone hadn't voted we would go around urging them to go out to the polling stations. I have been a political activist all my life but it was launched on a tricycle in Hampstead Garden Suburb."

Mandelson's nostalgic, gentle tone is hardly what you'd expect from the King of Spin, but does smack of the realisation that this is the end of his era.

When talking about the Suburb having a long-standing Tory council, he uses the past tense to say: "The New Labour years had a lot of people switching back away from the Tories."

And he talks about Tony Blair as a man who belongs in history.

"Britain has considerable standing in the world. I know from my work how the rest of the world views Britain. The Prime Minister has become a rather iconic figure, rather like Margaret Thatcher became in her own way.

"He is one of the two or three best known figures in the world. It reflects well on Britain and increases our leverage. But we have a greater weight as part of the European Union and we need to sustain that.

"I hope he is succeeded by someone who is constructive in outlook to Europe "

That is not to say that Mandelson has lost all his desire to make mischief and take out a couple of political foes out on the way. I ask him what he thinks of deputy leadership contender Hazel Blears' reaction to the need for a Labour leadership race as "division for its own sake".

He responds: "Her judgement when applied to the democratic process as a whole gives a sense of what she is saying. It is out of step with the way the Labour Party thinks. Going back to the 1930s or even further it has always been the case that our party has a leadership contest. We have always put forward our best and most serious leaders into a leadership race. Someone is selected and then we are united behind that person. The idea that that is always divisive is a terrible comment.

"I am not backing any individual candidate as it is not appropriate for me to do that as a commissioner. I am entitled, however, to comment on what my party does as I care very much about it."

Mandelson was himself accused of being a divisive figure during his ill-fated turn at the frontline of British politics, but as he prepares to embrace a new chapter in a checkered political career, now approaching its third decade, even his fiercest critics could hardly accuse him of being a quitter.