Peter Mandelson is suddenly the most powerful man in the country. Why did he decide to save Gordon Brown? And was he really old Labour all along?by Edward Docx / July 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
On 6th December, 30 years ago, on a dark and miserable night in south London, a few streets from where I am writing this, a young Peter Mandelson was elected as a Labour borough councillor to the world’s most insane local council—Lambeth. Representing Stockwell, the 26-year-old Mandelson found himself sitting on a Labour council led by a man called “Red Ted,” who was backed by a grim cast of Trotskyites and Bennites. Though few pause to consider it now, this was Mandelson’s first experience of real politics. It was winter 1979 and the Labour party was just about to forget about the British people altogether in favour of a long and enthusiastic tour of the hinterlands of lunacy and irrelevance. Mandelson was living in a tiny flat in Kennington. His bed—in the living room—folded into the wall.
On 17th February this year, Baron Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool was attending a drinks reception at the Manhattan penthouse that is the official residence of the British consul-general in New York. The secretary of state for business, enterprise and reform was in America to talk up the British economy. The centrepiece was a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. But, as he waited at the studios of CNBC during a busy day of interviews, Mandelson overheard the chief executive of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, claiming that Britain was in “a downward spiral.” On screen Mandelson reacted robustly; later on though—at the party and in the presence of journalists—he let fly: “Why should I have this guy running down the country? Who the fuck is he?” he was overheard to say. Thus a mini-media storm was set in motion. And yet there was a further, more private, layer to the evening’s events. At some point, Mandelson took a moment to send a text to the young daughter of a close friend who was also in New York and with whom he had been in touch throughout his visit—a text to the effect that the evening was deeply tedious and that he wished they had gone to the Armani party instead as they had discussed. It was New York fashion week and he would much rather have been with David and Victoria.
The two dates are illustrative. The first, in 1979, because many people forget the political landscape into which Mandelson first ventured and from which he has spent the last 30 years in flight—both individually and, with Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, as one of the triumvirate who created new Labour in the mid-1990s. Imagine that you are in your mid-twenties and that, for the next three years, your diary is full of meetings at which you will discuss lamp-posts and dog mess with people who have no interest in the practical necessities of government (or even lamp-posts and dog mess) and who believe that Trotsky is humanity’s best chance of salvation and denounce you as “an enemy of the people” if you demur. Of course, Mandelson is famously the grandson of Herbert Morrison (Labour home and foreign secretary, deputy prime minister), but it is on Lambeth council where Peter had his first real experience of the actual workings of the Labour party. And it is important to remember that he was not a media-fixer there but an elected representative; that he had to fight these people hand to hand through every policy decision, and that these experiences, as much as his ancestry, are what will have shaped his future thinking. A man’s life is set on its course and his opinions begin to ossify in the years between leaving home and his early thirties; and for Mandelson this period coincided with the far-left frenzy in the Labour party. It must have been dismal, and it is why the SDP was formed in 1981 and why Mandelson left politics for television the following year.
That second date in February this year—three decades later—gives us Mandelson in the resurgent pomp of his third reinstatement: at ease, lordly, a politician of international status, returned to the cabinet, enjoying himself and supremely confident. The Starbucks row is, typically, both an accidental nothing and neatly manufactured to ensure that his business in New York is also reported in Britain and reported favourably—Peter standing up for Great Britain Ltd against an impertinent coffee peddler. This is the man doing what he does so inveterately—doing what Alistair Campbell in his diaries calls “diddling,” roughly translatable as “pathological spinning.” The text to his friend’s daughter and that relationship itself is also telling—for Mandelson has changed since he left British politics for Europe in 2004. Much of the old defensiveness has disappeared. His private self—indiscreet, witty, vaguely Wildean—is becoming more public. As one of his closest friends, the author Robert Harris puts it: “He has made peace with himself. He thought it was all over and now he sees every day as a bonus. He enjoyed Europe, he stuck at it, he found it technically demanding, but it was no substitute for British politics.”
Indeed, the journey between these two moments comprises the most interesting political career of our age. Until now, it has been a journey made under other captains’ colours. But after three decades, two dramatic resignations and a surprise recall, Mandelson has at last emerged from the shadows as entirely his own man. He is de facto deputy prime minister, of course, but far more powerful than merely a bluff Prescott or an opining Howe. Like his grandfather before him (and Willie Whitelaw for that matter), he is now Lord President of the Council. Like Heseltine, he is first secretary—ahead of all the other secretaries of state. He continues to rule over the expanding business, innovation and skills department and (not insignificantly) he chairs the new domestic policy council. In the dog days of this Labour government, while Brown sweats and broods and frets his last upon the stage, any minister with ambition will see that the path to pushing a policy through lies not behind the door of the prime minister but behind that of Lord Mandelson.
Why this new pre-eminence? Because, in those bloody days in early June, it was Mandelson who never left Brown’s side and Mandelson who brokered and placed the cabinet. Had he decided otherwise, Brown would have been eviscerated. Moreover, when Labour loses the next election, Mandelson’s ability to transcend the Blairite-Brownite blood feud will leave him as the unrivalled kingmaker. He has become not so much the éminence grise of the party, after François du Tremblay, the 17th-century French diplomat, monk and confidant of Richelieu, but the éminence rouge, after the cardinal himself. The most powerful figure in the land.
Blair and Brown we have come to know intimately: their undeniable strengths, their obvious weaknesses; their psychologies, flawed or otherwise, and the manner in which their different private natures are expressed in the public gaze. The architecture of their characters is complex, no doubt, but it is also linear and well drawn. With Mandelson everything is circular, labyrinthine, shaded and contradictory. In talking with his friends and enemies, his colleagues and underlings, in reading the biographies, in reading his own books and speeches, the character that emerges is intricate and complex. Indeed, if one were to sit down and write the new Labour story as a novel or a play, it is not Blair, Brown, Campbell or Prescott who would be the greatest challenge: it is Mandelson.
Because, somehow or other, one would need to create a man who was both fiercely clever and unfathomably daft, both formidably direct and slyly oblique. A man who was loyal, disloyal, arrogant, insecure, brilliant, gregarious, shy, thick-skinned, thin-skinned, waspish, expansive, wry, camp, cutting and collusive; a supremely perceptive man, the best giver of advice of his generation; a man blind to the effect of his own behaviour, a terrible taker of advice; a vain, narcissistic man, self-sickened on occasion with amour propre; a generous, warm, selfless man; a man prepared to sacrifice himself again and again for the cause of his leader and his party; a man with tenacity, courage, stamina and endurance; a sneak; a man beloved by his friends, a serial godfather; an irredeemably adolescent man with a predilection for cheap theatrics; a small-time gossip; the best strategist of a generation and likewise the best briefer; an attention seeker; a sulker and a door-slammer; a grudge-peddler; a self-dramatist; a putter up of backs; a man popular where you think he wouldn’t be and unpopular where you think he might be loved; a first-rate minister—detailed, efficient, skilful; a decision-maker; a fool, a fine talent and an oracle.
But perhaps the greatest paradox of all is that—of the new Labour triumvirate—it is Peter Mandelson, the one who was not prime minister, who is the greatest political seer. In private his conversation is of people, the media, tactics. He has never been much interested in policy and yet his ability to presage a mood or divine an underlying movement surpasses that of any other politician of his generation and is as remarkable as the contradictions that comprise his character. Note the date and consider the following—from a speech he gave on 3rd March 1998 in Bonn on democracy and legitimacy:
“It may be that the era of pure representative democracy is coming slowly to an end. We entered the 20th century with a society of elites, with a very distinct class structure. In those days it seemed natural to delegate important decisions to members of the land-owning elite, the industrial elite or the educated elite. When Labour emerged as the party of the industrial working class, it developed its own elite of trade union bureaucrats, city bosses and socialist intellectuals. But that age has passed. Today people want to be more involved. Representative government is being complemented by more direct forms of involvement from the internet to referendums. This requires a different style of politics and we are trying to respond… People have no time for a style of government that talks down to them or takes them for granted.”
Such a paragraph could have been written at any time in the last few months. For if nothing else, the expenses row has made it clear that we are in the midst of that very shift he envisaged 11 years ago: the shift from elite mediated representative democracy to a more direct and cacophonous popular form. Of course, Mandelson has both been created by the new form of media democracy and remains a shaper of it; but he saw it coming and he will have considered what it means in terms of the Labour party and, crucially, who should be its next leader.
Peter Benjamin Mandelson was born on 21st October 1953 in Hampstead garden suburb, north London, into what might be called Labour party aristocracy. At that time, Hampstead was choking with the Labour party and its leaders—Gaitskell, Foot and dozens of their acolytes. Most importantly, the Wilsons lived down the road: a young Peter watched them leave for Downing Street, borrowed their son’s Cub uniform and was invited to visit the prime minister in June 1965—just as his mother Mary had been invited by Ramsay MacDonald a generation previously.
Peter was the second son of Mary and “Tony” Mandelson. George was his father’s real name but he changed it and was known to everyone as Tony. He was a flamboyant advertising director on the Jewish Chronicle—a showman, an operator, a wag and a success. A distant cousin of Mandelson has traced the family name to Nathan Felthusen, a Polish Jew who fled to England in 1829 after the Decembrist plot to overthrow Tsar Nicholas I. To evade the Tsarist secret police, Felthusen took the name “Mandelson,” a choice which is meant to relate to his new trade as a baker. (Mandel is German for almond.)
Mary Mandelson was more introspective than her husband and seems to have had an emotionally cauterised relationship with her own father, Herbert Morrison. Indeed, Morrison was an infrequent visitor to the Mandelson family home, especially after he remarried in 1955. The psychological fact of Morrison being Peter’s grandfather is in many ways more important than any actual relationship between them.
Miles, Peter’s older brother, a clinical psychologist, has said that Peter was closer to their mother Mary than to their father, and that mother and son “were in tune with one another at an emotional level, as well as an intellectual level.” Donald Macintyre, Mandelson’s authorised biographer, has documented the terrible rows between father and son, which ended with Peter stomping off to his mother in the kitchen to complain about his father’s “immature” and “self-indulgent” views. It seems to have been a combative almost rivalrous son-father relationship. Certainly, when Tony died, Peter, then 35, was deeply distressed—not least, Miles postulates, because of a sense of “unfinished business” between them.
In discussing this relationship, an aide who worked with Mandelson through the 1990s and who knew him as well as anyone at that time suggests that “all through that period, you could see that Peter was unconsciously seeking approval. You see it with lots of men whose relationship with their fathers is in some way difficult. They seek authority figures and they curry their favour. It is not an unusual thing for men to do—but Peter had it almost as a compulsion.”
And indeed, there is something of a pattern. Until very recently, the default setting in Mandelson’s hard drive has been to identify the most powerful person in prospect and then work exclusively, almost slavishly, for them—often at the expense of all other relationships. Of his time at St Catherine’s College Oxford in the mid-1970s (where, incidentally, Mandelson changed his name from “Peter” to “Benji”), Macintyre writes: “His election as JCR president clearly enhanced his own prestige in the college; but it was also useful… to Bullock [The Master] because [unlike the hard-line students] Mandelson was prepared to negotiate.” One could look at Mandelson’s relationship with Kinnock, his early relationship with Brown, then with Blair, and now again with Brown through this same prism. It is a strategy most often followed by intelligent people who for real or imagined reasons do not believe that they will be widely liked enough to advance to the top. And it is striking how many of Mandelson’s briefing notes—to Kinnock, to Brown, to Blair—read in the tone of a grown and independent but dutiful son. In truth, Mandelson’s real problem when John Smith died was that for two days he simply could not be certain which of the two—Blair or Brown—was the centre of power and therefore which he should serve.
But before we come to that, let us deal with some common confusions about the man. First, Judaism is matrilineal, so Mandelson is not and does not consider himself Jewish. In response to Tam Dalyell’s 2003 accusation of a Zionist cabal at the heart of Blair’s middle east policy, Mandelson responded carefully: “Apart from the fact that I am not actually Jewish, I wear my father’s parentage with pride.” Second, the perennial Radio 5 live caller’s question: given his lifestyle and his aspirations, why is Mandelson in the Labour party at all? It is partly a function of time and place, to be political in a middle-class, north London home in the late 1960s, early 1970s, meant being on the left. And, thereafter, it is a tribal thing—like being a Manchester City supporter rather than Manchester United, Catholic rather than Protestant.
Those inside Westminster accept this without question, but such divisions often puzzle outsiders. So it is worth noting that although Mandelson “adored” Shirley Williams, one of the gang of four who broke with Labour to found the SDP, he left politics rather than betray his party. Unlike Blair, whose father was a Tory, Mandelson is as Labour as it is possible to be: it is his DNA and the key to understanding how he sees himself.
Re-enthused by the emergence of Kinnock and the surfacing of the modernising tendency, Mandelson left his job at the politics programme Weekend World in 1985 to be Labour’s director of communications, a job he was desperate to land. From there on his story is more widely known. He is seen as having presented Kinnock well in the ’87 election. Then, keen to get out of the backroom and be taken seriously in his own right, he got himself selected as a candidate for the safe seat of Hartlepool in 1989. He won the seat in 1992 but was then exiled by Smith, who put it thus in 1993: “I don’t like the black art of public relations that has taken over politics. We are talking about the government of the country not the entertainment industry.” Then came Smith’s death and the few days that launched one of the greatest feuds in British politics.
Smith died on 12th May 1994. Macintyre’s biography has it that “the suggestion that Mandelson began to campaign, covertly or otherwise, for Blair in the 48 hours after John Smith’s death is not supported by the evidence.” But the unofficial biography by Paul Routledge takes the opposite line: Mandelson worked in a duplicitous and treacherous way for Blair from the moment he heard the news despite having enjoyed a longer and closer relationship with Brown. As we now know it was the rancour surrounding the choice of candidate that seethed throughout the Blair years and poisoned what should have been (pre-Iraq) two dream terms in office. And which, in turn, resulted in the terrible squandering of that rarest of governmental opportunities: a large mandate and swollen coffers.
Only Mandelson knows what actually happened. But viewed in the light of his habitual modus operandi—identify power and work exclusively for its wielder—a third possibility comes into focus: that for 48 hours, in the aftershock of Smith’s death, Mandelson was for once uncertain; and that in effect he began by working for both Blair and Brown—as much as an insurance policy as anything else and until his instincts told him what to do and a consensus emerged. As so often with Mandelson, all interpretations can be true: he did not seek to block or abandon Brown—but then he did. He was not working for Blair—but then he was. This is neither to exonerate nor to inculpate him; it is no coincidence that “operate” as a verb has little connotation of morality—operators operate for their own “peculiar end.” The phrase comes from Iago’s lines in the first scene of Othello:
In following him, I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end.
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In complement extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.
With hindsight of course, we know that Mandelson made the right call. His instincts about other people are almost always acute. Indeed, there may be only one person left on earth—even Ed Balls must have given up—prepared to argue that Blair was not the better choice for Peter, for the party and for the country. As far as Brown was concerned therefore, Mandelson’s task was to secure him the best possible withdrawal terms… since who knows what might happen in the future? Robert Harris sums it up: “He went in assuming, as most did, that Brown would be the next leader. But there was a lot of shock and confusion. And quickly he realised that it was certain to be Blair and that Brown might well be humiliated into coming third in the leadership election. And so what he did was to turn a probable third for Brown into a staggeringly strong second.” Characteristically, Mandelson’s motives are all bound up together—self-interest, party interest and national interest; and it is telling how often he conflates them.
Aside from the desire for a father figure’s approval, there is another psychological force working on the Mandelson of the late 1980s and 1990s. Claude Lévi-Strauss, the great anthropologist, has outlined how tribes in small villages tend to divide up male traits or areas of expertise between them. Partly to avoid conflict but mostly to allow individuals to affirm their usefulness to the group, distinctive male roles are both conferred and sought out. This is something playwrights and novelists know instinctively. When one begins casting a book or a play, one looks to ensure that the leading players inhabit distinct psychological, and often physiological, universes so that one can then throw them into conflict and create drama. Thus, for example, one might begin with an irritating but charismatic leader and his disfigured brooding nemesis, then one might write in a bluff deputy (for knockabout farce) and a blunt and bruising enforcer (for knocking people about). And then… well, the next character, the one that almost all the great stories have is the mystic, the magus, the wizard, the witch doctor, the high priest, the seer. In our own national story this is Merlin. But versions of the type appear in every language and in every epic ever written.
It is a two-way process. The furious bruiser is unlikely to seek out the whispering Svengali role. But, nonetheless, once a man with a predisposition for such a demeanour realises he might profit and become accepted by the group through adopting and performing it, so he plays up to those character traits and encourages those around him to confer the role upon him. And so, by slow degree, the role begins to define and constrain him, until, eventually, he is trapped. This is what Mandelson means, I think, when he says of the media that “he inhaled too much.” And here is Mandelson’s former aide again: “If you are not at ease socially—if you are from the generation where being gay was a problem, if you are very clever but not really a crowds person, if you are never going to be one of the boys, then you set about building an alternative structure for your life in order to be happy and to get some respect and some peace. Peter spent the first half of his political career trying to find a place that was psychologically comfortable in politics: he wanted to be a gay man in the centre of politics—not just an adviser but someone taken seriously in his own right. That’s why his emails and texts are more playful now. That’s why the cruel edge is gone. Because he is there, because now he is even more the person that he wanted to be.”
By way of tying the father-approval and the role-selection ideas together, here is something that Macintyre records about Tony, Peter’s father, in his book: “Alan Rubenstein, an old colleague and subsequently Tony’s successor, told the Jewish Chronicle: ‘He was a formidable operator. But for years he played the eccentric—until, finally, he was no longer playing it—he became the part totally.'”
All of which brings us to the question of Mandelson’s homosexuality—what Derek Draper once called “his gayishness” and what Blair himself subconsciously meant when he referred to his “being Peter.” Mandelson’s partnership with Reinaldo da Silva—a Brazilian in his late thirties—is a decade long. The relationship is private; they rarely appear in public together. Mercifully, few people under the age of 40 care about sexual orientation anymore. But two points are germane: first, that being homosexual has certainly made a difference to Mandelson’s view of himself; and, second, that it continues to matter in his day-to-day working life.
On the former, it is clear that Mandelson has not felt comfortable in public about the subject until recently—and this has undoubtedly affected the way he has conducted his relationship with the media, the party and the public. He was deeply upset when former Tory MP Matthew Parris “outed” him on Newsnight in 1998—even though the News of the World had run a much more salacious front page about him in 1987 headlined “My love for gay Labour boss.” The fact of his mother being alive (she died in 2006) may well have mattered in this regard as well. In any case, it is plain to see that Mandelson has felt that he had a painful extra negotiation to manage or avoid with both the party and the public. And doubtless, this worry channelled into his wider anxieties about being taken seriously and what his aide describes as seeking “a psychologically comfortable place in politics.” It is worth noting in passing, too, that a secondary legacy of his career is that the next generation of gay MPs do not regard their sexuality as an impediment; it is suddenly possible that one day there may be a first boyfriend in Downing Street.
The latter point concerning the day-to-day life is made perfectly by Robert Harris: “Being gay is an advantage to him. Or, rather, there are costs and benefits. One of the dividends, though, is that his life has assumed a different rhythm, he is freer. He remains very youthful, too. He is still the same person he was 25 years ago. And because he has no family he is able to be 100 per cent professional. To the people who need him, the people who matter, he is always there, always available. He has no great interests—he is cultured of course—but he has been able to live for his work. His officials say that he has an immense command of detail. That he is clear-eyed and able to take decisions every morning.”
No profile of Mandelson would be complete without dealing with the two catastrophically public cabinet departures. In a recent interview he has said of his relationship with Brown that: “It was a source of great sorrow and more to me that from 1994 onwards we were unable to get on. It wrecked my political career.” This may be true (and it is an interesting insight into how he thinks about these episodes) but it is surely also true that he himself “wrecked” his career when he failed to declare the interest-free loan from Geoffrey Robinson, the millionaire Labour MP, whose business dealings were being investigated by his own ministerial department. The fact that Brown’s people put the story into the public domain says a lot about the men Brown likes to have around; but it does not alter the fact that Mandelson had not declared the loan.
But the 2001 sacking over the suggestion that he had pressured a home office minister to give British citizenship to Srichand Hinduja, an Indian businessman who had sponsored the Millennium Dome, has now been widely acknowledged as unjust. The Hammond inquiry more or less exonerated Mandelson. On the issue that led to Mandelson’s downfall—whether or not he lied over a telephone call to home office minister Mike O’Brien—Hammond found that there was no “hard evidence” that the call took place. Interestingly, Alistair Campbell does not entirely concede Mandelson’s innocence in his diaries. On the subject of Mandelson’s memo to Blair and Campbell following the report Campbell writes: “In many ways it was a perfectly sensible note but there were still a few circles we were finding it hard to square.” Campbell is not generally a man for stylistic nuance but that, I think, is one.
When I asked one Blairite insider what she thought Mandelson’s best and worst moments were, she replied without hesitation, that the second cabinet exit was the lowest moment of Mandelson’s professional life. “It was like a kangaroo court. They had already decided. Peter was just sitting in my office and I had to go and take him down and I was crying and crying. Most people, it would have finished them off…” She cited his return to the trade and industry job ten years later as business secretary as the best: “The whole of the department was gathered on the stairs clapping him in.”
During the intervening years as a European trade commissioner (2004-08), Mandelson is thought to have done a decent, high profile and committed job—but no more than that. One senior diplomat said his reputation for cleverness was unhelpful both to the British cause and to his own—”if he had been really clever, he would not have had the reputation.” Another diplomat said: “Most commissioners make no impact but he was an intellectual and political heavyweight, no question. He mattered. However, in terms of what was achieved, it would have to be said that the harvest was very thin. He tried at Doha—and even if the talks did not succeed, it was not his fault. He piloted the EU and drove the process and made concessions, much to the chagrin of the French and Irish of course. But on the personal side, there was always the thing that he was not hugely liked. Even his friends and allies were suspicious of him. He seemed to radiate an intolerance of people whom he did not consider his equals.”
By all accounts, Mandelson put his heart into his work at the EU and threw himself into the life. This is another pattern, whatever job he is doing, he does it with zeal and commitment. (Belfast civil servants are full of praise for his stint as secretary of state for Northern Ireland.) But it is also true that he was delighted to return to national politics. If Doha taught him anything, it taught him that, for the moment at least, the nation state is where the action he so relishes remains. He may well miss what he has described as his “funky flat” in Brussels but he only really starts to foxtrot in the neo-gothic corridors of Westminster. Even the post office privatisation farrago is preferable to the exigencies of fathoming the Chinese mind on the subject of shoes.
The not-being-liked-thing, as Campbell might put it, comes up a lot. Mandelson’s enemies are many and their grievances legion. Though often, one suspects, they can be decoded into a single complaint: during the course of one political contest or another, he outwitted them. One thing they accuse him of time and time again, presumably because they feel it can be made to stick, is financial greed and even a tendency towards impropriety. These accusations have been floated most recently with regard to his time in Europe. There are the two yacht stories: the first from 2005, when Mandelson attended a new year party aboard the yacht of Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, while Microsoft was in the midst of a protracted legal battle with the European commission. The second was in 2008, when Mandelson accepted hospitality from the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. This drew opprobrium because, as EU trade commissioner, Mandelson had been responsible for two decisions to cut aluminium tariffs that had benefited Deripaska. The second yacht story also led to the row regarding Mandelson “dripping poison” about Brown and the subsequent humiliating of George Osborne for leaking the story; whether Mandelson “diddled” or not, it is yet again extraordinary how he emerged from the episode with his mythic reputation somehow enhanced. But, while on the subject of money, it is revealing that when Mandelson left television in 1985 to become Labour’s director of communications he took a big salary cut. And this is yet another pattern, because in fact on every occasion that he has been given the choice between politics-power and business-money, Mandelson has chosen the former. His much-peddled remark that new Labour was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” was a clever soundbite aimed, successfully, at puncturing the association of the Labour party with envy and spite. Something his leader needed to be said and could not say himself. The truth is that Mandelson is not that interested in wealth. Or rather, he is more interested in power. This is not to contend that he is not attracted to celebrities and millionaires—he would have preferred to be at the Armani party in New York—but that, in the end, his rich-list love-ins are more a form of curiosity and status affirmation than anything else.
And so we come to the Brown-Mandelson rapprochement and his return to the cabinet. In a recent interview Mandelson has been as open as he has ever been about this relationship and, specifically, how the big thaw began last year.
In July 2008, Mandelson was lunching in London with Jeremy Heywood, Brown’s principal private secretary. Mandelson recalls: “Jeremy arrived late for lunch and said that, on his way out, the prime minister had asked where he was going and he said, slightly sheepishly, not knowing the prime minister’s reaction, that he was going to have lunch with me. And Gordon said: ‘Can I come too?’ Jeremy said, ‘No, you can’t.’ So Gordon said, ‘Can you ask Peter to come and see me after lunch?'”
Mandelson affirms that they talked all that summer—and, in October, Brown contacted him to discuss the cabinet reshuffle. Mandelson “had been expecting to talk about other people’s moves, not mine.” But then Brown made his offer. “[Mandelson] said, ‘I’ve got a job already.’ To which Brown said, ‘I’m offering you a different job and in the circumstances, it’s a bigger job.'” Naturally, Mandelson went straight to see the other person in the marriage and Blair’s response was unequivocal: “You’ve gotta go back, it’s a no-brainer.”
People forget what close friends Mandelson and Brown and Sue Nye were before 1994. Nye is an ultra-loyal Brownite and now his director of government relations; Mandelson is pictured in the Macintyre biography with Nye’s children and often used to stay at her house. She is married to the one time Labour adviser and ex-BBC chairman Gavyn Davies. “I’m reverting to the relationship I had with Gordon previously,” Mandelson has said. And most people agree that Mandelson’s appointment was Brown’s greatest (only) masterstroke. Though ultimately he was brought back too late to stop the clunking fist pulverising the government and the party, Mandelson’s official presence provided Brown with both immediate rescue and longer-term breathing space in the run-up to the G8 summit.
The reason Mandelson is so valued by leaders (and has such an extraordinary hold on them) is, curiously, because of another paradox peculiar to him alone. If you are the leader—though only if you are the leader—then Mandelson is actually very easy to handle in the sense that you know what he wants: supreme access and real influence. And, as leader, you can give him this, secure in the knowledge that, unlike many other politicians around you—Straw, Harman, Cook, Brown (under Blair), Clarke, Milburn, Miliband, Burnham, Purnell, Balls, Johnson, even Blears—he has no designs on being leader himself. Mandelson never believed that he would lead, nor did anyone at the top of the party. (His friends are adamant on this and one was explicit: “I know for a fact that he does not wish to be prime minister or that he even thinks about it.”) So, if you are the boss, by inviting Mandelson in, you get the benefit of his advice and his strategy—plus someone at arm’s length who is fiercely loyal, highly effective and non-threatening. A dream appointment.
Until Labour’s most recent contortions, there had been some speculation that Mandelson had given up—on Brown, on the next election, on his own career—but now we know the reverse is true. Mandelson can no more give up politicking than Brown can forgo brooding. And having saved Brown a second time, he has now dramatically enhanced his own position. All the same, in his heart he must expect Brown to lose. And he must be already be thinking about the party’s fortunes beyond the next election. This is partly why he acted as he did: the Labour party has no money at the moment and, following the expenses fiasco, would surely have faced a more crushing defeat this year than it will next. In backing Brown, Mandelson has bought the party some time; and it is possible that by next spring Brown’s impressive performance in the economic crisis may just be showing results. Not that Brown is ever going to win, of course, but Mandelson knows that there is no nationwide enthusiasm for Cameron and even less for Osborne. This is not Thatcher ’79 or Blair ’97. The country will puff out its cheeks, sigh, and vote Tory, yet there will be little dancing in the street.
And Mandelson will also have calculated that although a general election defeat is inevitable, a second Conservative term is not. Not if (stage one) the Labour defeat is softened a little more with time and (stage two) the ensuing Labour leadership election results in the best candidate being chosen. And as we have seen, there is nobody better at working out and then supporting the most electable modernising candidate. If he is not doing so already, Mandelson will soon be seeking to move whomsoever he believes that person to be into the best place. It is even conceivable that, if Brown does not begin to claw back some popularity, a move to unseat him could be led by Mandelson in the autumn of this year—who else could do it and hold everything together?
And here we return to our main themes and arrive at the heart. In sum, Mandelson is a congenital moderniser because he remembers the lunatic gala that the Labour party had become. For him, it began in a bedsit in Lambeth and he has been in flight—politically, socially, personally—from that place ever since. He himself aspires. He understands that the public do too. He believes firmly, and he is right, that the British people only ever vote for the centre—a little to the right some of the time, a fraction to the left at others; a leader can dance about as much as he likes at either end—Iain Duncan Smith or Michael Foot—but he will be attracting fewer and fewer people. This understanding can be called cynicism or pragmatism; Mandelson’s political complaint with his father, a Bennite, was that he was “self-indulgent” and “too romantic.” If it had not been Kinnock-Brown-Blair, then it would have been whoever else he had found who understood the need to own the centre ground. Because, in the end, and behind it all, Mandelson sees himself as the guardian-in-chief of the Labour party. The keeper of the flame. And this is why—rightly or wrongly—he has long viewed his own interests, the interests of the modernising leaders, the interests of the Labour party and the interests of the country as one and the same thing. More importantly and less importantly than wanting to be prime minister, Mandelson believes himself to be Labour party’s chief sentinel, its protector and its greatest living custodian.
He grew up in a place and time when the Labour party were winners—when Labour leaders expected Downing Street. He was there in a way that no other current senior party figure was. And this to him is the real old Labour—a time of glamour and power and prestige and entitlement and seeing the Wilsons off to Downing Street. To him the left-wing and union hijack of the 1970s and early 1980s was “new” Labour—dowdy buttie-eating interlopers crazed by cod-socialism and Trotsky-chic. The changing of names has never presented an authenticity problem to him. Close family call him “Smish,” Blair called him “Bobby,” he was called “Benji” at Oxford, his father changed his name, the name Mandelson is itself a fabrication. Reinvention is also his birthright. And I believe he helped to create “new” Labour as a way of restoring the “old” Labour as he remembered it from his childhood—the Labour of his father and grandfather’s generation, the Labour of winners, of leaders. In this sense, Peter Mandelson is the most old Labour politician in the party.
The First Secretary’s CV
21st October 1953 Born in north London.
1964-1972 Educated at Hendon County Grammar School.
1971 Briefly leaves Labour Party Young Socialists in protest at Labour’s support for Vietnam war, and for a year is a member of the Young Communist League.
1973-76 Reads PPE at St. Catherine’s College Oxford.
1976 Becomes director of British Youth Council after re-joining Labour.
1979 Elected to Lambeth borough council.
1982 Resigns, disillusioned with Labour politics and becomes current affairs producer for London Weekend Television.
1985 Made Labour’s communications director. Labelled “prince of darkness” by Private Eye.
1992 Elected Labour MP for Hartlepool.
May 1994 Backs Blair in leadership campaign resulting in a long-term antagonism with Brown.
May 1997 Campaign director for Labour’s successful general election campaign. Appointed minister without portfolio, his role to co-ordinate within government.
July 1998 Becomes secretary of state for trade and industry, and a privy councillor
October 1998 Outed as gay on Newsnight by journalist Matthew Parris.
December 1998 Resigns from government after failing to declare a £373,000 loan from millionaire Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson.
October 1999 Appointed secretary of state for Northern Ireland, replacing Mo Mowlam.
April 2000 Publicly acknowledges his relationship with long-term partner Reinaldo da Silva.
January 2001 Resigns after suggestions that he pressured the home office to give British citizenship to an Indian businessman.
Becomes president of Hartlepool United FC.
November 2004 Made European commissioner.
April 2005 Revealed that he attended a party on the yacht of Microsoft founder Paul Allen, while the company was in a legal battle with the EU.
October 2006 In response to remarks by Jack Straw on hijabs, says: “Gordon looks pretty awful without his face covered up.”
July 2008 Begins talks to rejoin government.
October 2008 Made life peer and secretary of state for business, innovation & skills
May 2009 Environmental protestor throws green custard at him for supporting third runway in Heathrow
June 2009 Appointed first secretary of state