UK Politics

Mandelson memoirs: What have we learned from book?

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Media captionLord Mandelson: "I have told the truth in this"

In January this year Peter Mandelson was one of several politicians invited to address BBC journalists at something the corporation calls a "news festival".

The aim was for him and them to give us a sense of their plans and themes for the coming general election. And Lord Mandelson did mention the campaign in passing.

He talked in particular of his confidence that voters would soon begin to reassess Labour's record in government and come to a more positive conclusion.

But two memories stand out. First, he spent much of the two hour seminar talking about himself: his political journey as "the meat" between the Blair-Brown "sandwich"; his past "identity crisis", his frequent unhappiness, the constant pressure being a "lightning conductor" for anti-Blair resentment, and how it had on occasion affected his political and personal judgement.

It was a fascinating and revealing insight into what goes on inside Lord Mandelson's head. We were gripped.

View on Brown

The second memory is what he said about Gordon Brown. I took a note:

"I think my man will do well. He has depth. I think he has understanding of what he talks about. Given that the economy is going to dominate this campaign in the way it hasn't in previous elections - how to lock in the recovery, how to build on that recovery - he has got the defining judgements of the last couple of years right, that the government had to fight back and throw an enormous amount of resource at saving the banks from collapse.

"It was boldness and decisiveness. He led and others followed. A lot of the debate will follow from that defining judgement that he showed."

That, at least, was what Peter Mandelson was saying in public. We now know, thanks to his memoirs, what he really thought of the then prime minister.

"I was also worried about how Gordon would fare as a candidate... we were facing the prospect of the most presidential campaign in our history led by a candidate who freely acknowledged he preferred the policy over the communications aspects of his job...unless we could get voters to re-open their minds and reach a different view of him we would be sunk... one major problem was that Gordon looked tired.... Gordon and I had differences about the message we wanted to take to the country... my biggest source of anxiety remained Gordon..."

And so on and so on.

Solipsism and candour

It is these two themes, solipsism and candour, that run through Lord Mandelson's memoirs. His choice of title, The Third Man, shows that he considers himself as part of a triumvirate of political giants who have governed Britain in the last decade - Tony, Gordon and Peter.

Despite the many years of exile, on the backbenches and in Brussels, he places himself at the centre of recent political history. "I was at the heart of the story," he declares.

Note too all the photos of Peter with his rich and famous friends. Modest this book ain't.

Image caption The book places Peter Mandelson at the heart of British government over the past decade

But despite the distorting prism of ego, there is a sense that we might - at last - be getting at little closer to the heart of what Peter Mandelson really thought and felt. This is the paradox of the man. When briefing journalists, he could switch between the official line and the candid truth with alarming speed.

You had to watch, like a hawk, to work out which version of events you were getting. But in this book, he really is quite frank at times. His claim, for example, that Tony Blair thought Gordon Brown was "mad, bad, dangerous and beyond hope of redemption" is utterly astonishing language.

He reveals how much Mr Blair, for all his manic globetrotting, has stayed in touch with British politics - so much so that the former prime minister was aware of the Hoon-Hewitt coup attempt before Mandelson.

So if you are interested in the internal micro-politics of the last Labour government - the gossip, the feuds, the sulks, the rows over policy, the discussions of tactics and strategy - then The Third Man is for you.

The detail will make you laugh and wince, often at the same time. The insight will inform historians of the future. This is Mandelson unplugged.

Past not future

But the detail only goes so far.

There is not much of real substance that we learn for the first time. What we get is flavour, more colour and perhaps a little added explanation. Yes, Tony and Gordon did not get on; they differed over policy and ambition; both men considered but ultimately held back from open conflict. One promised this, the other promised that.

This is the point. The Third Man is about the past, not the future.

It does not reveal what Peter Mandelson thinks about the Labour leadership contenders, in particular whether he reckons any of them will be prime minister.

It does not set out what he thinks Labour should do in the face of this coalition government. Should it strategically try to drive a wedge between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats?

Or should Labour accept the government as an integral whole and oppose it head on? Where does he think Labour should be in two or five years time? How candid does he believe Labour must be about its past mistakes on the economy so it can make a more plausible attack on the government's spending cuts?

These are all questions for which Peter Mandelson could provide some fascinating answers. Sadly they are not contained here.

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