On the day that Peter Mandelson made his sensational return to the Cabinet, Chris Lloyd had an exclusive interview with Foreign Secretary David Miliband at an anti-BNP fundraiser.

THE one word on everyone’s lips at Friday night’s Labour Party dinner in Sedgefield was Mandelson.

People were swapping stories about how they heard as if it were the death of JFK – or the appointment of Joe Kinnear – all over again.

“What news?” said David Miliband with a theatrically innocent look upon his unwrinkled face. “It’s been a quiet day in the Miliband household.”

The Foreign Secretary learnt that the new Business Secretary was to be Peter Mandelson from one of his police protection officers. “It was a very well-kept secret, but Peter is a heavyweight and he will add a lot to the Government,”

he said. “Gordon has shown a real drive and determination to bring all the talents to bear to tackle this economic crisis.

“It’s a star signing for team Labour.”

Mr Miliband, the 43-year-old MP for South Shields, South Tyneside, bounded into Hardwick Hall with the energy of an overgrown schoolboy, wrapping his wiry 6ft 2in frame roughly around the neck of Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson and thumping him familiarly on the back – perhaps a little over-familiarly judging by Mr Wilson’s reluctant body language.

Mr Miliband was guest speaker at the dinner, which was raising funds for Labour and its fight against the BNP in County Durham.

“My father was a refugee who came, with his father, to Britain in 1940 at the age of 16,” said Mr Miliband, whose grandparents were Polish Jews. His father, Ralph, was driven off the mainland when Hitler invaded Belgium.

“He went to school and then served in the Royal Navy for three years, and so, when I hear that the BNP are fighting in the Sedgefield and Bishop Auckland constituencies, I find it pretty chilling.

“I was brought up to treat people on the content of their character and not the colour of their skin or their religion or their creed, and that’s part of my heritage and part of my politics.

“The past shows that the politics of hate does nothing for ordinary people, and the BNP offers words and simplistic slogans that will make people’s lives worse, not better.”

He believes the rise of the Right is partly down to Labour’s inability to get its message across. “It’s our job to break through the cloud of cynicism,” he said. “When 93 per cent of people say that they are very satisfied with their experience of the NHS, we have to say that didn’t happen by accident.”

A few hours before the dinner, he had opened MP Helen Goodman’s new office in Bishop Auckland. “When I was a couple of minutes away in the car, I was told ‘there’s a demo outside’,” he said, giving a first airing to an anecdote that will become part of his routine speech, “I said ‘oh dear, what’s that about’, and they said ‘fox hunting’.

“I said ‘I thought we had banned that’, and when we arrived these people, who were concerned about animal rights, had a big banner saying ‘vote Labour, keep the ban’.

“It’s the first time I’ve given a speech anywhere where there has been a demonstration in our favour.

“The choice people will have at the next election is, ‘Do you want a party that wants to reverse the ban on fox hunting or the party that introduced it? Do you want the party who opposed the nationalisation of Northern Rock or the party that did it?

The party that’s improving the minimum wage or the party that’s opposed it?’ “When put like that, the Tories don’t seem so cuddly or risk-free.

“In fact, they seem like a pretty big risk at a time of severe economic challenge.”

Sitting among the crockery set for tomorrow’s breakfast in the hotel, he praised the “extremely sure-footed” way in which Gordon Brown was handling the global crisis.

“I just feel very, very lucky to be Foreign Secretary,” he said, returning to his original theme. “When my father was demobbed in June 1945, the election was in July, and as he came off his ship, the last words his officer said were ‘Goodbye Miliband, don’t vote Labour’.

“My grandfather then went back to Belgium to find his wife. Their application to come and live in this country was turned down by the Home Secretary, James Chuter Ede, who was my predecessor as MP for South Shields.

“And now I’m a politician in a Labour government and I’m just extremely proud of that.”