Book review: Peter Mandelson’s The Third Man – Life at the heart of New Labour

At the book’s title suggests, Peter Mandelson’s memoirs The Third Man do not hold back from placing himself not only at the heart of New Labour but also at its top, variously using the phrases the three musketeers or the triumvirate to describe himself and the two Prime Ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Mandelson is also, alongside Peter Watt and Deborah Mattinson, part of another trio – Labour insiders who have recently published their account of life in New Labour. They all scatter some compliments about Brown through their books, but the overall picture painted of Gordon Brown is a deeply unflattering one. It’s a picture of a once talented politician and strategic thinker who spent over a decade in a sulk at not becoming Labour leader, frequently indulging in highly partisan infighting and repeatedly pushing to one side policy priorities as so many at the top of Labour were consumed with trying to keep the Blair-Brown show from completely imploding. As Mandelson records it, even Gordon Brown (speaking to him in 2008) admitted,

‘It was all so wretched between us all – you, me, Tony. It was so wasteful! We could have achieved so much more. We still did a lot, though. Perhaps surprisingly.’

‘I agree,’ I replied. ‘What on earth were we doing? We doubted each other. We read everything into each other’s motives and actions.’

He was right, I said. ‘You say everything we did through the prism of “We want to destroy you.” We say everything you did through the prism of “You want Tony out.” It was a sort of mutually assured destruction’.

Peter Mandleson, The Third Man - book coverThe picture of a Labour Party deeply split and distracted by this personality politics is not new, and was previously painted by journalists such as Andrew Rawnsley and James Naughtie. Mandelson adds some vivid colour, as when Blair said that Brown required “massive therapy” to get over not being leader or when Fiona Miller writes that, “I’d be disgusted if my children behaved the way [Brown] does”. One attempt to patch up the Brown-Blair disputes even resulted in a remarkable agreement to set up a “hotline system”; as Mandelson says this “sounded more like an arms pact” than an agreement between the two most senior figures in a political party.

What is new is the blame being placed almost completely on Brown through the accounts of him given in all three books. Mandelson’s version gives some indication of how future pro-Brown accounts may look to repair this damage to his Gordon Brown’s reputation. Did Brown repudiate Blair’s ideas to reform public services because they were Blair’s policies or because they weren’t properly thought out and weren’t Labour enough? The former clearly played a significant role, but perhaps future accounts will look to stress the latter rather more. In the meantime, it is Brown’s reputation – and so indirectly that too of his keenest supporters – which takes a battering.

Mandelson offers some insights into why Brown failed as Prime Minister, suggesting that the mode of working which suited him well at the Treasury was disastrously ill-suited to 10 Downing Street. As Chancellor Brown had a very fluid diary, his own attention darting back and forth between issues, but within the constrains that he only concentrated on a relatively small number of big events during the year, such as the Budget. A Prime Minister cannot similarly keep the number of big issues passing over their desk to such a small number and that much heavier flow, combined with the continuing frequent changing of diaries and flitting of attention made for a hopelessly slow, cumbersome and indecisive decision-making process. Issues came, went and came back again with added levels of micro-management in lieu of clear strategic decision making.

Arguments over Brown are matters for history now. Mattering rather more for the immediate future of the Labour Party is how the reputation of its leadership candidates emerge. Ed Balls’s role at the centre of Brown’s infighting cabal is already well known. What Mandelson’s book also emphasises (and coming from someone who has made a career out of having to choose words carefully, it is hard to believe this is accidental) is how central Ed Miliband also was to the Brown and Balls set-up.

Even back in 1997 Gordon Brown was running his own parallel election campaign structure, with Ed Miliband one of the key players in this private unauthorised operation that dogged the footsteps of the party’s official campaign under Blair ordered that it ceased.

By contrast, his brother David gets a generally complimentary write-up, with Mandelson often praising his skills and giving an account of events that places David Miliband’s decisions not to challenge Brown as the end results of careful and reasonable thought rather than as the result of a lack of courage at the big moments.

Mandleson’s account contains a series of rebuttals of hostile accounts others have given of his actions at various times in his career, with Alistair Campbell being painted as ill-informed and blundering in this book’s account of Mandelson’s second resignation as a result of the Hinduja passport affair.

Peter Mandelson is not without criticism of his own actions, though they are in the general without specific examples conceded save in the case of his first resignation where he admits to at least a significant lapse of his political judgement in not seeing a problem with taking a loan from Geoffrey Robinson.

The most interesting, and hardest to judge, parts of the book are Mandelson’s account of what went on inside his own head. In the end no-one else can known for sure how true or accurate his account of his inner psychology is. There are some touches of inconsistency with other people’s accounts and between Mandelson’s own words which act as a reminder that the book is not just about what Mandelson did in the past but how he will be remembered in the future. One such inconsistency even occurs within the book where Mandelson both plays down his role in ensuring Gordon Brown was not ousted following James Purnell’s 2009 resignation and yet also later describes how he went into “overdrive” at that time. An overdrive of languidly calling people who weren’t really unhappy at all isn’t quite what he means I suspect, with that second version being rather closer to the truth.

Despite these doubts it makes for an at time fascinating account of the psychological pressures on those at the top in politics and the degree to which events are about how personalities cope with pressures rather than about simple academic weighing of policy options. As Mandelson summarises his own view of politics, and seeks to explain his hostility yet loyalty to Brown, “Perhaps it is a fault to cling too dogmatically to an idea or a policy, but not, in my view, to a person to whom you have made a commitment”.

The degree to which New Labour did not stick dogmatically to previous ideas is demonstrated by Mandelson’s account of when he first was impressed by Tony Blair in the 1980s. It was an appearance on Question Time – where Blair laid into the Conservatives for undermining civil liberties. By the end of his time as Prime Minister, Blair had so comprehensively gone much, much further on civil liberties that the Conservatives were left the liberal defenders of civil liberties to Labour’s right-wing authoritarianism.

The origin of Brown’s reputation is also laced with historic irony, as Mandelson accounts on the following page. Brown’s stand-in role responding to the government’s autumn financial statement in 1988 was a virtuoso display of political rhetoric laying into a Conservative government which, he said, had overseen irresponsible levels of borrowing and only superficial economic success for it was “a boom based on credit”. The same speech that made Brown’s national reputation could also act as its epitaph.

As for Mandelson’s own political future, he has been such a colourful and influential character that it holds a general interest across politics. More specifically, for the Liberal Democrats he presents himself in the book as in favour of the Alternative Vote, generally welcoming the idea of Lib-Lab cooperation and even the man who prompted Gordon Brown to drop the childish/lazy (delete to choice) use of “Liberal” and to start using “Liberal Democrat” if he was serious about wanting to strike a deal with the party. Those attitudes could yet turn out to be important to the future of British politics.

You can buy Peter Mandelson’s The Third Man: Life at the heart of New Labour from Amazon.

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