The battle to write the inside story of New Labour

Freed from the cares of office, party heavyweights are racing to get their version of the years in power into print

Andy McSmith
Thursday 27 May 2010 00:00

For many years he was the power behind the scenes of New Labour, an adviser and trusted courtier, and the real or imagined source of hundreds of off-the-record briefings. Now Peter Mandelson, the Machiavelli of Blairite and more recently Brownite politics, is contemplating going on the record. He has a project in mind that would add his name to the ever-expanding list of outgoing politicians who have published memoirs or diaries to vindicate their years in office.

Ever since Winston Churchill declared, after leaving office in 1945, that "history will be kind to me for I intend to write it", almost every departing prime minister and a great many lesser politicians have followed his example. It is a way of making memoir, filling time and defending a reputation.

Tony Blair is the next ex-Prime Minister to go into print, with a memoir acquired at vast expense by Random House, which will come out just as the party political conference season gets under way in September.

Gordon Brown will probably follow him, in another year, though someone who is in touch with the former Prime Minister said yesterday: "He has not been on to a publisher yet – but that doesn't mean he is not going to."

Lord Mandelson is not saying what the focus of his book will be. He has not signed a deal with a publisher yet, but he is unlikely to have any difficulty finding one. The Times has already signalled an interest in the serial rights.

Andrew Adonis, the former Transport Secretary, is working on a slim volume which he hopes to get quickly into the shops, describing the frenetic five days that followed the election of the hung parliament. Lord Adonis was part of the Labour team sent in to negotiate with the Liberal Democrats, and was perhaps more committed than anyone else involved to the idea of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition, having begun his political life in the 1980s in the short-lived Social Democratic Party.

He will set out to prove his thesis that the Lib Dems should have reached an agreement with Labour, having more in common with them than with the Tories, but never took the negotiations seriously. All they did, he suspects, is keep Labour talking to strengthen their hand in the only negotiations they took seriously, with the Conservatives.

Alistair Darling still has a political job to do as George Osborne's "shadow" in the House of Commons but will step down when a new Labour leader is elected. Then he is expected to start work on an account of his three years as Chancellor, which covered an extraordinary period of financial turmoil, beginning with the collapse of Northern Rock.

Political memoirs are part of a market where supply exceeds demand, which means that some of the other political players who want their exercises in self-justification published may have to offer something special, or publish at their own expense. Publishers sometimes offer huge advances, but increasingly seem to feel that these are not usually justified by sales.

In Margaret Thatcher's day, a departing minister could write a book that said nothing new and was a study in blandness, but could still find a publisher – though not necessarily many readers. Now there is greater demand either for some form of personal confession, or a political revelation that is going to embarrass someone still in office. The obvious recent example of the politician's memoir as confession was Screwing Up, by Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat frontbencher whose political career was brought to a sensational end by tabloid revelations. In trying to explain the behaviour that brought about his downfall, Mr Oaten emphasised the stress he suffered when he discovered that he was going bald.

The other type of political memoir that might sell is one filled with catty revelations about colleagues, preferably ones who still wield power or influence. The published portion of Alastair Campbell's diaries was unsparing in its judgements of people who had crossed the spin-master, such as Mo Mowlam – "unbelievably up herself" – or Adam Boulton, political editor of Sky News – "total scum". But what was published was only a fraction of what he wrote, and was stripped of anything that might damage the Labour Government, such as details of the running conflict between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. The full diary is now being prepared for publication; the first volume, covering 1994-97, is out in June.

It may be scurrilous. But it will all be evidence in the battle for vindication in the court of political history.

Authors and their works

Chris Mullin

The View from the Foothills

Mullin was the least important of the politicians in this list, measured by how far he climbed up the greasy pole, and it is no coincidence that his dairies have been the runaway critics' choice. As he himself observed: "It is said that failed politicians make the best diarists. In that case, I am in with a chance." Mullin is the one who looked at the political machine from the outside and saw all its ridiculous aspects. Though he is scathing about the absurdity of politics, he is generally kind and gentle about the individuals who appear in these pages. Even so, politicians tend not to like these diaries, which belittle their trade. Yet they went down well with the reading public.

Hot cake factor:

David Blunkett

The Blunkett Tapes

In contrast to the way he rubbished fellow ministers when talking to his biographer, Stephen Pollard, Blunkett was unusually loyal when alone with his recorder. This 842-page tome is short on political revelation, but long on agonising over his mistakes. Reported advance: £400,000. (Reported sales: about 4,000.)

Hot cake factor:

Robin Cook

Point of Departure

Cook left government with his integrity intact and did not need to indulge in self justification. Instead, he provided the first hard evidence that Tony Blair had abolished rule by Cabinet in favour of government from the sofa. That was in a way more revealing even than Cook's account of how Blair took the UK into the Iraq war. But some were shocked that he should repeat confidential conversations so soon after they took place. Reported advance: £450,000.

Hot cake factor:

Alastair Campbell

The Blair Years

The book that came out in 2007, at 794 pages, was the shortened and detoxified version of the complete diaries, the first volume of which will hit the bookshops next month. Trained as a tabloid journalist, Campbell could at least write, but there is a predictability in his judgements. He is unsparing in his contempt for those who do not show proper respect for Tony Blair, balanced by fulsome admiration for those who do, including George W. Bush. The full, "unexpurgated" version is likely to reveal mus more about eh antagonism between Blair and Gordon Brown.

Hot cake factor:

John Prescott

Prezza: My Story

It may have been his story, but he did not write it. The writing was ghosted by Hunter Davies, author of books about the Beatles and Gazza, which probably contained about the same volume of political insight as this book, in which the main revelation was that the longest serving Deputy prime Minister in history had an eating disorder. It was also replete with occasions when he felt snubbed or belittled, dating back to the traumatic day when he learnt that he had failed the 11 plus. Reported advance: £300,000.

Hot cake factor:

Clare Short

An Honourable Deception

This was an more impassioned account than Cook's which showed up the same flaws in Tony Blair's style of government, with sharp comments on some of the idiotic things intelligent Cabinet ministers said to convince one another of the case for war with Iraq. Also, a sadder book than Cook's, because she knew she had torpedoed her own reputation by first supporting the war then belatedly resigning. Reported advance: £40,000.

Hot cake factor:

Lance Price

The Spin Doctor's Diary

Price was Alastair Campbell's deputy in Downing Street in 1998-2000, then did a similar job at Labour headquarters for a year, and went into print four years later. Though he wrote well, he was never part of the Blair inner circle, and he did not see enough to make the diaries compelling.

Hot cake factor:

Jonathan Powell

Great Hatred, Little Room

Powell was Tony Blair's chief of staff throughout his tparty leadership, and ranked on a par with Alastair Campbell as his most senior adviser. He chose to concentrate on one story: how peace was brokered in Northern Ireland. It a must read for students of Northern Irish history; less so for others.

Hot cake factor:

Cherie Blair

Speaking for Myself

No one could complain that this was short on sensation or self revelation. The detail that has stuck in most people's minds is that Leo got started because Mum and Dad were staying over at Balmoral and she had left the contraceptives behind,. That should do wonders for a growing boy's self esteem. Also lots of detail about their first date, her menstrual cycle, about the blood and ripping flesh as she gave birth, about what Tony and Alastair said after her miscarriage, and how distressing it is to be vilified by the press. Political insight? Who needs it?

Hot cake factor:


Tony Blair: The Journey

It cost Random House £4.6m up front to get the ex Prime Minister to write this book, so we can only hope for their sake that it sells. The publisher, Gail Rebuck, wife of Blair's private pollster, Philip Gould, says it will be "frank, open, revealing and written in an intimate and accessible style." Until September, we can only take her word for it.

Gordon Brown

He has written books before – for example: Courage: Eight Portraits on a range of political heroes, such as Nelson Mandela. It is not impossible that he will now want to give us a portrait of himself.

Lord Mandelson

He once said he is a "fighter, not a quitter", but now that he has actually quit front line politics it appears that he is going to give his account of how right he was about practically everything.

Alistair Darling

The former Chancellor is still busy being shadow Chancellor. But when Labour has a new leader, he will step down from the front bench and may well want to get his version of the last three years out there before someone else puts out a version less to his liking.

Lord Adonis

Not currently interested in defending his political record or his life generally, but is furiously intent on placing on record his version of the five frantic days when he attempted to negotiate a coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. May not be a bestseller.

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