Review: The third man by Peter Mandelson
(Harper Press, €33)
Published 07/08/2010 | 05:00
John Reid, when he was first appointed secretary of state for Northern Ireland, had a habit of introducing himself by reference to his two immediate predecessors. "Ah don't go round huggin' people and ah don't go round thinkin' I'm cliverer than other people . . ."
He may have been a bit hard on Mo Mowlam, but he got Peter Mandelson spot on. The fact is, though, that in most of the political situations in which he found himself, Peter was cleverer than most. A slightly irritating aspect of this autobiographical memoir is that he knows it, and it shows: an incorrigible tendency to display his Jack Horner syndrome.
It is, nevertheless, an important account of the workings of modern British politics at a critical turning point, and also a deep insight into the dynamics of political parties in the era of mass communications, the interplay of personalities, and the battle between egotism and policy, between shadow and substance.
Peter Mandelson has made his own record as a political resurrectionist, having served three times in cabinet after being fired twice before, finally being sacked by proxy by the voters, not personally this time, but as part of the electoral judgment on Gordon Brown and his government.
The first firing was engineered by Brown's acolytes in vendetta, as an act of personal and political spite. The second resulted when Tony Blair, at the behest of Alastair Campbell, ditched his closest friend on grounds which barely bear scrutiny. The scars of these double sackings and the need to vindicate himself form the heart of the book.
Mandelson, a man easily wounded, has been shafted in turn by his two closest associates, but still feels drawn to both. A political junkie, he still needs the fix of proximity to power, and finds it in trying to mediate the fraught relationship of the other two.
All through, the elephant in the room is Gordon Brown, whose chagrin at having lost out to Blair in the struggle for the leadership breeds resentment, distrust, a desire for vengeance, impatience for the highest office and a willingness to be destructive on every occasion. He saw himself as the true guardian of the flame, and Blair as a dilettante courting public favour.
Billed as 'the story of New Labour', the book is an interesting account of how a small group of determined people can take over a political party, forcing upon it policies which are heretical to the party faithful, but attractive enough to the voters to the extent that a party which had made itself unelectable by, in a memorable phrase, "refusal to compromise with the electorate", finds itself in government, and for three consecutive terms. That they did so for laudable reasons does not remove the nagging worry that, perhaps, modern political parties are more vulnerable to manipulation than they care to admit.
In a book that promises to tell all, Mandelson discloses very little that is not already public knowledge. He tells the story, but not the whole story. There is the rapprochement with Murdoch and the crucial backing of the Sun, but no indication of the price paid by Blair -- presumably to reverse engines on Europe and the euro. There is the Iraq war, but little about sexed-up dossiers, or the massaging of legal advice until it becomes compatible with policy decisions already taken.
Irish readers will be disappointed that the story of his period in the Northern Ireland Office, sandwiched between two sackings, takes up less than 30 pages out of nearly 600. His replacement of Mo Mowlam, seen at the time as a sop to Unionism, was clearly right. Mo, who had heroically managed the crucial anchor lap, could not have managed the final sprint to the line as well as Mandelson. He is also now seen to have been more right than those who criticised him for closing down Stormont in order to bring Sinn Fein to a sense of reality, and the IRA ultimately to disarmament. But there is little new information on offer in the book.
His time in Brussels as European Commissioner in charge of trade negotiations allowed Mandelson to escape from the strait-jacket of New Labour and domestic British politics, but not from the toils of old friendships and enmities. The calls kept coming, first from Blair, and then from Brown. The Brown government is unveiled in all its horror -- a paranoid prime minister unable to make up his mind; a sensible chancellor too often overruled; a divided cabinet and a muttering party; and the final sordid attempt to defy the wishes of the electorate by holding on to power.
Tony Blair can be seen in his first term to have squandered the opportunities offered by a landslide election. He did not act on Europe, on electoral reform, on standing up to Brown, much less sacking him.
Mandelson, in listing the achievements of New Labour, coincidentally manages to catalogue the shortcomings and failings, both personal and in policy development, of both its main standard-bearers. His book can be read as his attempt to square the account with both his betrayers.
It presents a much more human and humane Peter Mandelson than the Machiavelli of the tabloids -- a loving son and brother, a loyal friend, a man respected by those he worked with, committed to social justice and the underprivileged. There must be another life in him and, inevitably, another book.
It can hardly have escaped him that the original 'third man' came to a sticky end in the sewers of Vienna. New Labour might have gone down the drain, but there must be plenty of mileage left in Mandelson. As he says himself, Peter's not a quitter.