Tony Blair played an active role in Labour's agonised debate on whether to ditch Gordon Brown before this year's general election, according to Lord Mandelson's memoirs published today.
Mr Blair vowed not to be a back-seat driver and to keep out of domestic politics – in public, at least – after stepping down as Prime Minister in 2007. But Lord Mandelson reveals frequent discussions with him over Mr Brown's performance and the three unsuccessful plots to oust him. His behind-the-scenes role after he left No 10 will anger allies of Mr Brown, who claim Mr Blair reneged on agreements with him struck in 1994 and 2003 to stand down as Prime Minister.
In 2008, Mr Blair talked several times to David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary and his favoured successor to Mr Brown. He believed Mr Brown had only about a "20 per cent chance" of making a political recovery. "Both of us had a duty to help him take that one last shot, but if he stumbled, Tony felt, there would have to be a leadership challenge," Lord Mandelson writes.
During the final attempted coup against Mr Brown in January this year, Lord Mandelson says that he and Mr Blair "both agreed that if anything happened I should not be involved in encouraging it, but nor should I go into overdrive as I did when James [Purnell] resigned [in June 2009]."
Two months after Mr Purnell quit, when Lord Mandelson visited Mr Blair at his Buckinghamshire home, the former prime minister told him: "Very quickly, the credit you're getting for helping Gordon could turn into criticism that you are the only person propping him up, and are therefore responsible for the party's demise."
His book, The Third Man, says that Mr Blair and his allies Alastair Campbell and Lord (Philip) Gould, feared that if Lord Mandelson helped to prop up Mr Brown "beyond the point of no return", Labour might suffer an even worse election drubbing than already seemed on the cards. "They accepted there were no circumstances under which I would participate in forcing Gordon out. But they also felt I should not stop him using the revolver if it came to that," Lord Mandelson says.
The book reveals an extraordinary move by Lord Mandelson to persuade Mr Brown to leave Downing Street to become "President of Europe" – the post that Mr Blair failed to land last year. "If I stood, they would have me," Mr Brown told Lord Mandelson, who comments: "If it was true, it struck me that it would be good for Gordon, good for Britain and very possibly good for our electoral chances. 'Are you interested?' I asked him. 'It's a good job.' He quickly replied, 'No. No.' I let it drop."
Lord Mandelson's 14-year feud with Mr Brown began when he backed Mr Blair as Labour leader in 1994 and ended with his surprise return to the Cabinet in 2008, after which he became Mr Brown's right-hand man. He defends his decision not to join the plots to install another leader before the election.
He admits that some in his party believe he contributed to Labour's defeat by bolstering Mr Brown's position. "One reason I did not take action was partly selfish: I did not want to be accused of 'treachery' all over again," he concedes. "But also, I was never convinced, so near the election and in the absence of an obvious consensual alternative, that a change of leadership could have been easily, bloodlessly or quickly achieved, or that having three Prime Ministers in a single Parliament would have been an electoral asset."
During this year's election campaign, Mr Blair rang Lord Mandelson to criticise Labour for cosying up to the Liberal Democrats and urged him to step up attacks on Nick Clegg's party. He warned that Labour would be making a mistake of historic proportions if the Liberal Democrats finished above it in the share of the vote.
Mr Blair also intervened to tell Mr Brown to step down during talks on a possible Lib-Lab coalition after the May election. "Tony told him, and me, that the public simply would not accept Gordon remaining as Prime Minister in those circumstances," Lord Mandelson writes. "He also felt that the issue was absolutely crucial to the way Labour would be seen in future by the voters."
According to the book, Mr Blair hoped that Charles Clarke, the former home secretary, would stand against Mr Brown for the Labour leadership in 2007, because this would allow David Miliband to enter the race. Although Mr Blair "harboured doubts about whether David was wholly New Labour", he was sure he would be "a candidate of renewal and reform, and had some chance of winning."
Lord Mandelson told Mr Blair: "You are in danger of being blamed by history for saddling us with Gordon because of your own desire to keep buying him off to save yourself, and because of your failure to build up an alternative in the Cabinet." Mr Blair replied: "I fear you may be right."
In his own words...
Mandelson to Blair on his Iraq war doubts
"You can go in, you can take out Saddam, but what do you do with Iraq? You're going to have a country on your hands. I don't know what your plan is. I don't know how you're going to do it. Who is going to run the place?" Blair replied: 'That's the Americans' responsibility. It's down to the Americans.' I said I certainly hoped they knew what they were doing."
"Shortly before the invasion, Alastair [Campbell] and I were talking when he [Blair] suddenly asked me: 'Do you think we're right to be doing this?'
"I couldn't help but laugh. 'Gosh,' I said, 'It's a bit late to ask that, isn't it? I thought you've made up your minds.
"He said: 'Well, we have.'
"'And?' I replied.
"'And we're going to do it,' said Alastair."
Blair to Mandelson
"'There are three groups in the Labour Party. There's Old Labour. There are people who are not Old Labour, and will follow New Labour, but who aren't really New Labour. And there are those who are genuinely New Labour.' Who are they?' I asked. He replied: 'Me. You. And that's about it.' "
Blair on Brown
"He's like something out of the Mafiosi. He's aggressive, brutal, in order to get what he wants.... It's intimidation. He is eclipsing me in order to dislodge me."
Mr Blair "variously believed, and told me, that Gordon was mad, bad, dangerous and beyond hope of redemption."
Mandelson on the failings of this year's election campaign
"I could not seem to make the levers and buttons work in the way I had in previous campaigns."
"I had struggled in the weeks leading up to the election, and had never felt able to get a grip on the campaign."
Brown on Brown
"So much of the problem is me. I realise that." (To Mandelson, October last year)
Brown to Mandelson
"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."
Mandelson to Brown
"You saw everything we did through the prism of 'We want to destroy you'. We saw everything you did through the prism of 'You want to get Tony out.' It was a sort of mutually assured destruction."
Mandelson on Mandelson
"I had described myself as 'Minister for Looking Ahead.' I was clearly not particularly good at doing that for myself. If there was one 'psychological flaw' that I shared with Gordon, it was tunnel vision." (On his £373,000 home loan from Geoffrey Robinson which led to his first resignation from the Cabinet in 1998)
Mandelson on Britain's debt crisis
"The problem was that we were deep in a pit of debt, and still digging. The markets and the media knew it, and the country felt it." (During a dispute between Alistair Darling and Brown ahead of the pre-Budget report last December)