Mandelson: the push for power

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The Independent Culture
April 1997: as polling day approached, Labour was losing voters in droves over its pro-European stance. Under Mandelson's guidance, Tony Blair picked up a bulldog mascot and a new patriotic rhetoric. And as this final extract from Donald Macintyre's biography reveals, Labour's change of tune on Europe outmanoeuvred the Tory Eurosceptics and kicked away their last support The headline on The Daily Telegraph's lead story was awful - just about as bad as you could expect in a general election: MANDELSON AND BROWN STAGE SHOUTING MATCH IN MILLBANK AS LABOUR LEAD FALLS. Fortunately for the Labour Party, it never appeared. It was from a list drawn up for Mandelson by the ever-fertile David Bradshaw, seconded from The Mirror to Millbank Tower for a meeting of Labour spin doctors to discuss how they would tackle certain worst-nightmare scenarios, several of them gruesomely plausible: RICHARD BRANSON TELLS MAIL I WANT TO GIVE MAJOR ANOTHER CHANCE; MORTGAGE RELIEF WILL BE SCRAPPED IN FIRST BUDGET, SAYS FORMER BROWN ADVISER; EUAN BLAIR SAYS MUM TOLD ME WE ARE GOING TO LIVE IN DOWNING STREET; KEY SEAT POLL SHOWS TORIES NOW NECK AND NECK; SHORT WARNS LABOUR NOT RADICAL ENOUGH. The list testified to the party's preparedness. Every possibility, however remote, had to be catered for. Mandelson regarded complacency as the clear and present danger of the campaign. Campbell, the fourth (and only non-politician) member - with Blair, Brown and Mandelson - of the quadrumvirate at the centre of the campaign, agreed. His friend, the Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, memorably warned Campbell at the beginning of the election that it was all too easy to be distracted into thinking about life after victory, rather than about what you had to do to achieve it. "You're in the position of a manager a month out from the end of championship when you're seven points ahead," he said. "What you have to develop is tunnel vision. If you see anything that doesn't need to be there, get rid of it."

Mandelson, as much as Campbell, had no trouble in developing that tunnel vision. Never more than a moderate drinker, he foreswore alcohol altogether until Blair had got to Downing Street.

Europe was the one element of the campaign which would have a significant impact beyond polling day. It would have been a relatively complex issue for Labour even if Blair had not been trailing The Sun in its wake, as the pro-European - and instinctively pro-EMU - Mandelson had been one of the first to recognise. But as polling day approached, Mandelson was deluged with evidence of a Eurosceptic turn in public opinion, particularly - though not exclusively - among "switchers" (ex-Tory voters now contemplating support of Labour). Philip Gould was reporting both that Europe was becoming more important as an issue, and that there was a "clear shift in opinion against Europe". This was anecdotal as well as scientific: on Thursday 24 April, a week after Major's appeal to his party not to "bind my hands" on the single currency, Nick Humphries, a campaign infantryman humbly situated on the front line in the Walworth Road telephone canvassing bank, sent in a "Dear Mr Mandelson" fax.

"We are losing voters in droves," it said. "Whenever Europe and the question of sovereignty become centre stage, people instinctively lurch to the Tories. Otherwise strong Labour supporters are prepared to vote Tory solely over the issue of 'defending the nation'. Interpretation: Avoid Europe at all costs. Blair must go overboard on his nationalism/patriotism." Mandelson sent the message, marked "TB to see", up to Blair's office, a storey above the first-floor war-room at Millbank Tower.

It looked very much as if the speech by Jacques Santer, President of the European Commission, three days earlier, had badly damaged Labour. A blistering attack on Eurosceptics throughout Europe, but, by implication, especially British Conservatives, it had widely been treated in the Europhobic press as an unwarranted intervention by a foreigner in domestic British politics. Moreover, Humphries's judgement was about to be handsomely vindicated. The very day after Mandelson received his fax he was sent by Opinion Leader Research the latest findings from two focus groups in Leicester surveyed the previous evening.

The report noted: "There appeared to have been something of a sea change. Whereas before the issue appeared to be the Tories' in-fighting, it now appears to be one of 'us' (the English, not the British) versus 'them' (Europe)... the past performance of Major on Europe appears to have been forgotten and Labour and Blair's credentials (experience, negotiating skills) are beginning to be questioned."

Humphries's point about "avoiding Europe" was well taken. Mandelson pressed on with unveiling, on his own terms, his secret weapon: his cherished party election broadcast with "Fitz" the bulldog to underline the robust Britishness of the campaign. He was fastidious about it in only one respect. A note from the ad agency BMP warned that the dog's testicles were just visible in the shadow; should they be airbrushed out?

"Yes please," Mandelson wrote in the margin. It was, as Mandelson would remark later, to be a "very New Labour dog".

Not surprisingly, the increasingly defensive and chauvinistic note struck in the Labour campaign had already begun to worry some of the Tory pro- Europeans, heroically holding the line against the tide of Euroscepticism in their own party. In separate chance conversations with Mandelson, Ken Clarke and John Gummer had both assured Mandelson they would hold the line against attempts to persuade John Major to rule out the single currency. But what if Labour were now preparing to desert the cause and rule it out until the next election - matching, or even outdoing, the Tories in Euroscepticism? That would leave Ken Clarke, whose threat of resignation had prevented John Major ruling out membership, hopelessly exposed.

On 6 April Robin Cook showed worrying signs of heading in just that direction. He said he saw "formidable obstacles" to joining the single currency in 1999 - or the two years after that. This appeared significantly to harden Labour's line against the single currency. Worse still, from the point of view of the Tory pro-Europeans, Blair did not slap down Cook's phraseology the following night in a Panorama interview - one in which he appeared unusually flustered.

At this point there was a rare occurrence - rare, at least, during a general election: secret contact across enemy lines. There was sufficient anxiety in the Clarke camp for Anthony Teasdale, Clarke's special adviser at the Treasury, to seek clarification. Roger Liddle, soon to go to Downing Street to work for Blair, was already acting as an unpaid adviser to the Labour Party, and Blair and Mandelson in particular. Teasdale, who knew him to be a fellow pro-European, now telephoned him to find out what was going on in the Labour high command. If Labour was about to harden its line against the single currency, it seriously affected Clarke's position.

"Keeping the entry option open was a major priority for Ken," said Teasdale. "He had, after all, signalled his willingness to resign over the question. After talking to the Chancellor, I rang Roger and asked him point-blank if Labour's policy was about to change. He said that he did not think it would or should but that he would find out and get back. He did phone back days later: the policy was staying the same."

After the initial call Liddle sat down the following morning and wrote an urgent and confidential memo to Mandelson pointing out the facts of life. Cook had gone significantly further than the Tory government, which had stipulated that British entry on 1 January 1999 was "very unlikely" but was officially neutral on entry at any time after that, and might even consider going in at the start if the launch date was delayed beyond 1999. Liddle put his finger on the problem: "Is it really in our interests for Major to shift the Government's position to ruling out effectively a single currency in the next parliament? If in Clarke's judgement, it is Labour that has sold the pass, I would not bank on a Clarke rebuttal or resignation. Rather, I would expect Clarke to retreat in disgust as the Tories try to save themselves from oblivion by out-flanking us in Euroscepticism."

This outcome would have been perilously close to one of the "nightmare scenario" headlines which David Bradshaw had produced for Mandelson a fortnight earlier: MAJOR AND CLARKE ANNOUNCE AT AFTERNOON PRESS CONFERENCE THAT TORIES WILL NOT JOIN SINGLE CURRENCY IN THE NEXT PARLIAMENT. But it was not to be. Mandelson now swiftly sent the Liddle memo on to Jonathan Powell in Blair's office. And though some pro-Europeans, inside as well as outside Labour, continued to be alarmed by the campaign's nationalist tone, the loose language used by Cook and, to a lesser extent Blair, about the single currency was not repeated. And Clarke did not abandon his stand against ruling out the single currency in the next parliament. Labour did not "sell the pass".

David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh, authors of The British General Election 1997 say, correctly, that "Peter Mandelson was credited with many things for which he was not responsible"; but they add that the tributes paid by the Conservatives to the operations of Labour's Millbank centre and their determination to learn lessons from it "make it possible that 1997 will be seen as a landmark for Mandelsonisation".

One of the things for which Mandelson could reasonably take credit was the level of practical readiness achieved since early 1995. Many other people deserved to share that credit. But, as Kavanagh and Butler point out, it was Mandelson who had "planned the details; a grid of 'who does what' lists of themes and 'messages'; research and rebuttal routines..." The physical preparations were designed to ensure that nothing - not indiscipline, nor confusion, nor imperfect communications, nor incompetence - got in their way.

At 6.30am on Friday 2 May, Mandelson presided over a meeting of some of the key players in his team: Margaret McDonagh, Matthew Taylor, Tim Allan, David Hill, Wegg-Prosser. With a steely sense of party discipline that would have done credit to his old comrades in the YCL, Mandelson proposed that McDonagh and Faz Hakim should get on to the regional press officers and find out who the hell some of these unknown new MPs, washed so unexpectedly ashore on the tidal wave of Labour's massive election victory, actually were. Were they, er, sentient? Were they Blairite? Were they, in short, trouble?

Then, at mid-morning, almost everybody in the war-room at Millbank began to collect the green cards which would admit them to Downing Street for the "spontaneous" demonstration of party workers awaiting the Blairs as they arrived triumphantly at Number 10. Mandelson, back in his big blue chair at the central desk, did not stir. Where could he go? While the new Cabinet were busy round Whitehall installing themselves in their new departments, he could hardly show his well-known face among the celebratory crowd in Downing Street. He did not yet have a department to go to. He watched the extraordinary moments as they unfolded on television in an empty, silent room strewn with paper and used coffee cups, deflated, solitary - and suddenly wiped out with exhaustion.

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