The word of the Lord
The trouble with Lord Mandelson’s autobiography is that the thing he tries to paint as tragedy – the thwarting of his and Tony’s big plans – is enjoyed by most sane people as comedy.
Lord Peter Mandelson is not so much a man as a collection of metaphors. Across his many morphs, he’s the Prince of Darkness, the Sultan of Spin, a hybrid of ‘Machiavelli and Hyacinth Bucket’, Tony Blair’s Jim’ll Fix It, the comeback king of Labour’s lengthy soap opera, the mincing villain of its seaside-panto-slash-psychodrama, and, now, he’s The Third Man.
As Eamonn Butler of the Adam Smith Institute has already pointed out, it’s unclear whether Mandy has ever sat through the Graham Greene/Orson Welles classic of the same name – ‘the story of a morally repugnant fraud who is prepared to sell out his oldest friends for his own personal gain, and who dies in a sewer’. But it becomes clear, quite early on in his autobiography, that Mandy sees himself, not as a cynical Harry Lime, but as the chief victim of New Labour’s Elizabethan tragedy. The story is like nothing so much as Othello, with Tony Blair as the Moor, Gordon Brown as Iago, and Mandelson himself as handkerchief-clutching Desdemona – throttled twice for good measure.
The old story goes like this. Othello must go to Cyprus to aid in the defence against the Turks. I’m sorry, Blair must reform the Labour Party in order that it will win a General Election. Blair loves Mandy. Mandy loves Blair. With Mandy offering him sandwiches and writing his speeches, Blair is sure to win glory. Enter Iago, page 36: ‘Gordon took a spoonful of yoghurt and unpeeled a banana. “I don’t like sandwiches”, he said when I offered him the plate. Then he got down to business.’
Gordon’s business involved manipulating Cassio and all the rest of the cast (I’m sorry, the media), who loved Othello (I mean Blair), in an attempt to remove him from Cyprus (I mean Number 10). It took an awfully long time, but eventually the motivelessly malignant Brown managed to oust Blair – in 2007 – by which time Blair had found himself strangling his beloved Mandy twice, first as trade and industry secretary and then as Northern Ireland secretary.
The Third Man is not a great read. But it is an interesting one. The force of the betrayal narrative is so strong – and so simply written – that if you weren’t paying attention you might get swept away with it and not realise that Mandelson appears to be lying through his teeth on almost every page.
Take, for example, his ‘shock’ at the notion that Brown would not succeed John Smith to the Labour leadership in 1994. ‘I was startled. It had never occurred to me that Gordon wasn’t up to leading the Labour Party, nor that he would not at some stage do so. Tony’s remarks left me unsettled and confused as I turned them over in my head… for days afterwards.’ Yet a mere 12 pages previously, Mandy mentioned a Sunday Times Magazine profile of Tony Blair – not Gordon Brown – which ran the day after Smith’s election as Labour leader, headlined ‘The Leader Labour Missed’. ‘The suspicion that I had set up The Sunday Times piece was correct’, notes the Third Man. ‘I had suggested it to the interviewer and columnist Barbara Amiel.’
Insights into the Mandy school of straightforwardness can be gleaned from an allusion to the column he began writing for GQ magazine. ‘I was careful to say nothing of great political consequence. As a result, I said nothing of great consequence.’ Much the same can be said of his memoirs. Aside from making the whole of the top tier of the Labour Party seem like a bunch of lunatics (a fact we know already from the exhausting torrent of biographies of Blunkett, Prescott, Campbell and Cherie), Mandelson doesn’t add much to our glimpse of the inside of the asylum. Brown glowers ‘like a black cloud’, knifing him and Tony whenever possible. Tony strums his guitar. Alastair launches a tirade. Prescott throws a punch. And the New Labour project never really quite dupes anyone. ‘Who is convinced by New Labour?’, Mandy asks at one point. ‘Me. You. And that’s about it’, replies Tony.
There are moments of humour, although they are not necessarily those in which Mandy tries to make the reader titter with his allusions to mushy peas and guacamole. For example, there’s the time style adviser Carole Caplin tells Mandelson and Co. that caffeine will kill them; so Mandy switches to lemon and hot water ‘and subsequently graduated to green tea’. Now if that’s not a cutting-edge insight into where New Labour was heading, nothing is. He also devotes a solid paragraph to explaining that he never did mistake mushy peas for guacamole in a Hartlepool fish-and-chip shop (but it wasn’t entirely made up either – according to Mandelson, the mistake was actually made by an American aide of Jack Straw’s). Details of his and Tony’s bizarre code names are pretty snigger-inducing, too. A plan to split up the Treasury and diminish the power of Iago is referred to as ‘Teddy Bear’. With inspiration like that, how did it fail? Mandelson and Blair’s inept attempts to deal with the monster nextdoor – Brown/Iago – really do leave you feeling almost sympathetic to Gordon.
There is a moment when Mandy first gets to grip with making Labour ‘New’. ‘What is “Putting People First”?’ demands Eric Heffer, at the unveiling of the very first of Mandy’s many meaningless slogans. ‘It was just one of a series of heartening reviews’, Mandelson notes. Then there is the moment when Mandy orders in a load of ‘thornless roses’ for Neil Kinnock to throw at the front row of a Labour Party conference – and he seems wholeheartedly to believe that this will boost the morale of the Labour ranks. The first photo set-piece he pulled off for Kinnock involved a little child – who I suspect might have been the recently failed Labour candidate Georgia Gould – whom ‘Neil, wonderfully, spontaneously, lifted aloft. The photographers loved it.’ Somebody pass the sick bag. Of course the whole of Blair’s career was based on his ability to go around acting ‘wonderfully, spontaneously’ in a way Kinnock could never sustain. ‘Labour was saved by you’, Philip Gould tells Peter. But the question that lingers is: ‘For what?’
Blair is said to be livid that Mandelson’s book has pipped his no doubt duller one to the bookshelves. ‘I could have written a very bland book’, said Mandy at one of his press launches. ‘I could have taken three years to do it [like Tony Blair]. And then I could have published it into a sort of void if HarperCollins had been stupid enough to publish a book like that in three years’ time.’
Now this is true candour. This is the sort of no-nonsense, burn-all-your-bridges stuff that could really have made The Third Man a page-turning bitch-fest. But now that he has conned the public into coughing up for around 50,000 copies for his not-really-revelations, who can gainsay his talent for one thing: self-promotion? We haven’t seen the last of Mandy. But in the end, the tragedy he tries to draw here – the ruin of his and Tony’s fresh promise through the vindictive spite of Gordon Brown – surely can’t have many people weeping in the aisles.
Emily Hill is a reporter on the Londoner’s Diary at the Evening Standard and is also spiked’s columnist on celebrity culture. Visit her personal website here.
The Third Man: Life at the Heart of New Labour, by Peter Mandelson, is published by Harper Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)