The Third Man

The Third Man: Life at the Heart of New Labour, by Peter Mandelson, Harper Press RRP£14.99, 566 pages

Bobby; the Third Man; the Sinister Minister; Mandy; Silver Tongue; even – by association with a secret project to break up Gordon Brown’s Treasury – Teddy Bear. Peter Mandelson left office with one of the longest official titles in British politics, a whopping 16-word mouthful (Baron Mandelson of Foy in the County of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the County of Durham), but the variety of his nicknames is a better index to the character and record of this most theatrical of politicians.

From the first, he arrived with pantomime lighting. I came across him initially when he was a young, mustachioed Labour staffer. During Labour conference, Stan Orme, an irate shadow cabinet member, had thrust a letter at me. The letter told him and his colleagues not to give interviews or speeches until they’d cleared them with Mandelson first. The veteran leftwinger was outraged, accusing Mandelson of being a jumped-up so and so. “Who the bloody hell does he think he is?” asked Orme. Back then, it was a genuine query.

Writing a newspaper diary, I could see some comic value in such an imperious command. A gently mocking paragraph was duly composed, the conference day of gossip and alcohol continued and, the following morning, I was wakened in my overheated hotel room by a strange scratching noise. Someone was pushing an envelope under the door. It was a handwritten letter that read, from memory, that after my “inaccurate and hurtful comments”, I was now officially banned from trying to speak to, write to, telephone or in any way communicate with the undersigned, “yours, Peter Mandelson” – and the killer flourish, “director of communications”.

Inevitably, this too was irresistible for the next day’s paper. Mandelson rose (and red-rose) to much higher things but the mix of intentional menace and unintentional slapstick remained. For much of the rest of my career, Mandelson remained a “source” with whom I was far more often on “non-speakers” than the reverse. Recently, he thoroughly beat me up on my own television programme, waving his finger so aggressively I feared he was trying to pick my nose.

He has written a good book. “Good” here means informative, clear and containing refreshing doses of self-knowledge, occasional regret and thoughtfulness. If he lashes out at others, he does not altogether spare himself for the failures of New Labour. The style is plain, and sometimes flat: the Mandelson trademark conversation, waspishly funny or dripping with treacle-dark threats, does not translate to the page. Nor is the story he tells inherently amusing.

The material that has made headlines is just new words for old stuff. Tony thinks Gordon’s a loon; Gordon thinks Tony’s a primping show-pony; Alastair’s shouting at Peter; Peter thinks Alastair’s a beast. If you want a characteristic sentence, try: “Tony’s view was that the problem wasn’t John, but Gordon.” Former colleagues are reported to be livid. For the life of me I cannot think why. Every couch potato, barfly and domestic pet in the country has known all this for years. Nor are there great revelations about the various scandals that engulfed Mandelson, though I did come away feeling he was hard done-by in his second resignation.

Much more interesting is why these tangled rivalrous relationships were allowed to dominate the Labour years. Towards the end of his book, Mandelson spends some pages explaining why, all in all, New Labour was a great success. The trouble is that, coming after hundreds of pages of what he would once have called tittle-tattle, it feels a tad perfunctory. It also begs questions that are never quite answered.

The central one is about Tony Blair himself. For one of our longest-serving prime ministers, who gave his name to an “ism” and was one of Mandelson’s closest friends, Blair is an oddly vague, fuzzy presence in this account. Mostly, he does not act. He complains. He prevaricates. He finds himself lonely: “I feel a lack of allies. I feel isolated.” He fantasises about fresh starts. Lord Birt, an adviser to the Blair government, is quoted saying that “the bewildering problem with Tony” is that “he doesn’t do anything when people fail to carry out his wishes”. Mandelson agrees, feeling that perhaps the problem is “unfixable”.

A good departmental minister himself, Mandelson anatomises many New Labour failings. There was the seductive idea of endless targets; the “lack of structure and rigour” in Number 10; ministers’ (including his) naivety about money and rich donors who expected “something in return”, so producing an “unavoidable” impression of corruption; and an obsession with headlines. He is honest about his own imperiousness, though he was ruder than he chooses to remember, while friends as well as enemies will grin to read that although a love of high living “crept into my soul”, it was never about luxury or “swank”.

But the book does not quite answer that Blair question. Why, if Blair really thought Brown was paranoid and unfit to lead (page 377), did he acquiesce in him becoming prime minister? Why, if he thought Brown a “terrible micro-chancellor” who “messes things up” by interfering and wasting money (page 355), did he always flinch from moving him? Why, if he had the strength of those election victories and huge majorities, did he feel so weak?

Before long, we will get Blair’s version of all this, but the answer may lie in the nature of the New Labour project itself, conceived and executed as a tight little group taking over a party, then a country, and running it from the centre, aided by media friendships, obsessive polling and a web of directives, targets and orders. If Blair and his “modernisers” felt weak, could it have been because they lacked a coherent, easily understandable programme, expressed in plain English, and used to build a permanent political base of supporters in the country? In short, a theory of democratic politics?

If the result was decision-taking by a tiny group of alpha males in private and often at the last minute, then perhaps the lack of forward drive and the depressing narrative of squabbles was inevitable, not coincidental. Mandelson seems to admire the new mood of collegiality and politeness that has – so far, these are early days – marked the new Con-Lib coalition. Plural and open politics, he says in the final pages of this book, offer a better prospect than “a descent into angry, tribal trench warfare”.

After such a wretched story, most readers will agree. And that, not rehashed name calling, is the lesson both for today’s Labour contenders and today’s ministers. It was just that he barely had the time because of the psychodrama. Honest reappraisals allow for new generations of younger, wiser men.

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