Sound and fury, but little dynamite so far in the Mandelson memoirs

By Andrew Grice
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:14

In April 2008, Lord Mandelson began gathering material for his memoirs. After trawling through his private papers, he was almost breathless with excitement as he told friends: "It's a goldmine. You can't imagine what I have found."

With his old foe Gordon Brown installed in Downing Street, the implication of his remarks was obvious: there was plenty of treasure that would damage the then Prime Minister.

At the time, Lord Mandelson was serving a five-year spell as Europe's Trade Commissioner, frustrated that there was little prospect of a global trade deal. He also judged there was no chance of him securing a second term in Brussels. To deny Mr Brown the satisfaction of sacking him, he sacked himself, blurting out in a radio interview (without forewarning his staff) that he did not want to stay on anyway.

What we have seen so far from the serialisation of the Mandelson memoirs and the accompanying hype, suggests that at least some of his treasure will remain buried. The script changed after a remarkable and unexpected reconciliation between Mr Brown and Lord Mandelson which ended with his surprise return to the Cabinet in October 2008 after the then Prime Minister pleaded: "Will you help me?"

A surprised Lord Mandelson said yes, and returned to his beloved Department for Business. He called this his "day job" but from day one spent much of his time in Downing Street, bringing some order to a dysfunctional machine. Mr Brown became even more dependent on him in June 2009 when James Purnell resigned from the Cabinet. If others had followed, Mr Brown would almost certainly have been forced out. But Lord Mandelson steadied the ship, and was rewarded with the formal title of First Secretary of State, and unofficial one of Deputy Prime Minister.

Why did he protect rather than knife Mr Brown? He made clear privately at the time that he believed so much blood would be spilled that, despite Mr Brown's unpopularity, removing him would not improve Labour's election prospects. Friends detected another reason: his Cabinet comeback was also designed to heal the wounds from the feud that began when he backed Tony Blair rather than Mr Brown for the Labour leadership on John Smith's death in 1994.

So the Prince of Darkness's memoirs might have been much darker for Mr Brown if he had not returned to become his consigliere.

Today’s extracts of TheThird Man in The Times reveal that senior cabinet ministers believed Labour was going to lose the May election – hardly a state secret. When Harriet Harman proposed three campaign themes last October – future, fairness and families – ministers added some F-words of their own. Labour was “fucked”, quipped Alistair Darling; the campaign was “futile”, said Douglas Alexander, while Lord Mandelson judged that Labour was “finished”.

Tony Blair believed there should have been a leadership challenge, telling Lord Mandelson last August that if the forces gathered to sweep Mr Brown away, he should not be the “one pillar keeping him upright”.

Yesterday's first extract of The Third Man in The Times anoints Nick Clegg as "the executioner" who forced Mr Brown to announce he would stand down as the price of a Lib-Lab coalition when the May election ended in stalemate. The only trouble is that this was a very public execution.

Lord Mandelson tells us, interestingly, that he did not want Mr Brown to leave Downing Street for the last time under the cover of darkness. But his disclosure that Mr Brown had "run out of patience" and resigned as Prime Minister while the Liberal Democrats and Tories were still stitching together a coalition is not new.

As I reported the following morning: "In a break with protocol, an impatient Mr Brown jumped the gun, taking Mr Cameron by surprise by travelling to the Palace to tender his resignation while formal talks between the Tories and Liberal Democrats on a coalition deal were still continuing."

Yesterday's first extract also went into great detail about the Lib-Lab coalition that never was. The real story is that there was never going to be one. No one had won the general election but it was obvious that Labour had lost it. Yet Mr Brown told Lord Mandelson that coming second was "not the final word" and drew up plans for a Lib-Lab cabinet. Many Labour MPs thought the party should go into opposition rather than patch together a rainbow alliance with the Liberal Democrats and smaller parties – without the necessary numbers for an overall majority. Lord Mandelson informs us that Mr Blair warned Mr Brown there would be "an outcry if we stay on".

Lord Mandelson's most perceptive remark so far is about Mr Cameron's decision to compromise on policy and seek a full-scale coalition with Mr Clegg rather than a looser arrangement for the Liberal Democrats to support the Tories in key Commons votes. He writes: "In the past, I had felt that Cameron was not bold enough about changing his party. But now he was acting boldly, and if he pulled off a deal with the Lib Dems the alliance would offer him a renewed prospect of delivering a changed perception of his party."

Although Lord Mandelson was "almost alone in our ranks in being impressed". he adds: "To me, it sounded like the new politics". Two months into the Lib-Con coalition, we now know Lord Mandelson was right.

Who said what to whom? Sore points at the heart of New Labour's memoir wars

Granita - what did Tony promise?

On 31 May 1994, as Labour geared up for a leadership election, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown dined in an Islington restaurant, Granita. There, Brown agreed to give Blair a clear run at the leadership. His people later claimed, off the record, that Blair promised in return to resign after 10 years, but that he broke his word in 2004. Alastair Campbell's diary suggests Brown drove "a hard bargain". Cherie Blair denied in her memoirs that there was ever a pact. Perhaps Blair's book will say more.

Who screwed up over the single currency?

In October 1997, Gordon Brown gave an interview which produced a headline that Labour ruled out joining the euro until 2001. That was the first Mandelson or Blair had heard of it. Even worse, Blair could not contact Brown and ended up seeking clarification from Charlie Whelan, who was on a mobile phone outside the Red Lion pub. Campbell accepted a share of the blame. "CW and I both believed we were doing what TB and GB wanted," he wrote. Mandelson and Blair may be less kind.

Whoever said Gordon was gay?

Because he was a bachelor, the then Chancellor was asked about his sexuality on Desert Island Discs. To put the rumour to rest, Charlie Whelan fed Brown's biographer, Paul Routledge, with a long list of past girlfriends, and later arranged a romantic photo shoot of Gordon dining with Sarah Macaulay, his future wife. But who started the rumour? Alastair Campbell's diary names two suspects, only to exonerate them: Mandelson and himself. Mandelson will doubtless concur.

Who was to blame for Peter's first downfall?

In December 1998, The Guardian learned Mandelson received a loan from the Treasury minister, Geoffrey Robinson, who was being investigated by Mandelson's Department of Trade. Both ministers resigned. Blair suspected Whelan leaked the story. Campbell wrote in his diary: "[Lord Falconer] said when he went to see Robinson, Ed Balls came in and went through what CF was sure was a charade of not knowing anything about it." Brownites have always denied involvement.

Was Tony guilty of stealing Gordon's budget?

In January 2000, during a Sunday morning interview on The Frost Programme, Tony Blair announced that spending on the NHS would be brought up to the European average. There was an immediate counter-briefing from the Treasury that this was no more than an "aspiration", after a furious Gordon Brown accused Mr Blair of "stealing" his budget. But Mr Blair repeated the promise, and got it into the 2001 election manifesto. There must have been a fine row, but no memoir has told the story.

How Gordon was nearly sacked in 2005

At the start of 2005, though an election was looming, Gordon Brown was hardly seen at Tony Blair's side. The former Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, no friend of Brown, was in charge of planning the election campaign. It later emerged that a plan had been drawn up for a "new Chancellor" to be told after the election that the power of the Treasury was to be reduced. But come the election, the old Blair-Brown double act was back together. Blair even bought the Chancellor an ice cream. Another story still to be told.

Those plots to force Tony to go

The most blatant attempt to depose Blair was in September 2006, when Brown's ally Tom Watson and others resigned from the Government, soon after a public tirade from the party treasurer, Jack Dromey – Harriet Harman's husband – about Blair's people soliciting secret loans for party funds. Was Gordon Brown orchestrating them? According to Peter Watt, then Labour's general secretary, Blair told him: "It's just Gordon. He can't stop himself. He always has to push, push, push."

Whose fault was bigotgate?

Peter Mandelson's memoirs make clear that you cannot blame him for the disaster in Rochdale, when Gordon Brown called Mrs Gillian Duffy a 'bigoted woman'. Lord Mandelson was elsewhere writing up a speech, though afterwards he dispensed advice on limiting the damage. He blames no one but Gordon. But Charlie Whelan says the disaster might not have happened if Lord Mandelson had allowed him, Charlie, on side to watch over Gordon.

Andy McSmith

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