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Mandelson’s vanity came before the party interest

The Independent, July 12th 2010

His mistake was overlooking the possibility of a coalition with the Lib Dems

Brace yourself. Just when you thought it was safe to take politics seriously again, you’re about to be hit by a slew of accusations, gossip and bitchiness worthy of a teenage girls’ sleepover party. “Tony’s not talking to Peter coz he put his book out early and Charlie and Jack are, like, not going to Peter’s launch party on Thursday and Charlie W says Peter lost us the election …” Yes, it’s political memoir time and Peter Mandelson is already preening himself in newspapers and on TV, infuriating his former colleagues. “So self-serving and narcissistic,” was one judgment yesterday.

What I doubt Mandelson will admit in his book is that he is pretty much single-handedly to blame for Labour no longer being in government. Had he not fought so strenuously to prevent Gordon Brown being replaced, a new leader would surely have won 20 or 30 more seats at the general election and Labour would still be in power, with enough seats to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. You only had to read Phil Woolas’s diary in last week’s Independent to see what an electoral burden Brown was to the party. The former immigration minister wrote of his voters: “There were two groups: ‘we’ll vote for you but you’ve got to get rid of Brown’ and ‘get rid of Brown and then we’ll vote for you’.”

Mandelson knew perfectly well how useless Brown was. Just days before he was brought back into British politics in October 2008, he spoke to a former Cabinet colleague at party conference and they agreed that Brown was a disaster. When Mandelson almost immediately rejoined the Cabinet, as one Labour insider puts it, “we knew that Gordon would be saved and Labour would be destroyed”.

Well, it’s not quite destroyed but it is certainly out of office. And all because Mandelson strove officiously to keep Brown alive. The following summer, after Labour suffered catastrophic local and European election results, the Work and Pensions Secretary, James Purnell, resigned from the Cabinet, hoping to precipitate more Blairite resignations and a change of leader. Mandelson and Shaun Woodward, the Northern Ireland Secretary, hit the phones on behalf of Brown and pleaded with ministers not to follow suit.

They achieved their aim and were rewarded. Woodward was given extra responsibility for communications in the Cabinet Office and Mandelson was given the honorific title of First Secretary of State, as well as Lord President of the Council (to the fury of Harriet Harman). To most people, these baubles mean little, but Mandelson adores pomp and ceremony and fought hard for the pure flummery of chairing 10-minute Privy Council meetings in front of the Queen and having a walk-on part at the state opening of Parliament.

Mandelson told colleagues then that he could not join their plot to oust Brown because he already had a reputation for duplicity and didn’t want to enhance it. Moreover, Brown had accused him of betrayal in 1994, when he backed Tony Blair for leader, and he was at risk of looking like his biblical namesake. But that doesn’t explain why he didn’t merely remain above the fray, rather than doing everything he could to keep Brown in place.

The uncharitable explanation is that he loved being the most powerful man in government. To all intents and purposes, he was. He had huge influence over Brown, who owed his continuing presence at No 10 to Mandelson. When Mandelson was jokingly introduced by a friend, soon after the failed Purnell coup, as the real Deputy Prime Minister, he replied archly, “Deputy?”. With Brown in nominal power, Mandelson was effectively in charge. Had Alan Johnson or David Miliband become Prime Minister, he might no longer have been the spider at the centre of the web.

Others put it more charitably. He had been horribly bored as a European commissioner. Both his stints in Cabinet had ended in disgrace. Brown offered him the chance of redemption by inviting him to re-enter Cabinet with a cherished peerage (for some time afterwards, his enemies found “the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson” to be the most irritating phrase in the English language). It would have been monstrously ungrateful then to turn on his benefactor.

But this is all about Mandelson (funny, that…) What about the effect on the Labour Party? At the time, when Mandelson was doing all he could to persuade his colleagues to keep Brown at No 10, he used the arguments that Brown would change (an implausible idea) and that Labour’s trump card was the economy, which Brown knew how to run. Now, his friends are saying he was worried that the party would turn on itself if there were a leadership contest and the resulting turmoil would make things even worse.

This was certainly the line Brown himself took when one of his Cabinet colleagues suggested he should do the decent thing and resign. “I talked in pretty explicit terms to Gordon about it. The only way we could have had a new leader with a chance of winning would be if he had stepped aside. He wouldn’t agree to go. He said the party would be too divided afterwards: it would fragment into about six different factions and the damage caused would have been just as bad as him staying.” Other Cabinet ministers who had their doubts about Brown, like Jack Straw, feared the same bloodbath.

It is true that Labour has a cumbersome and long-winded process for electing a new leader. Had the electorate been just MPs, they could have had a swift contested election and an almost seamless succession, as we’ve just seen in Australia. But a leadership contest with an electoral college might still have been perfectly amicable. After all, the current contest hasn’t descended into vitriol. Even without hindsight, the balance of probabilities was then against keeping Brown. It was quite clear in 2008 and 2009 that Brown was going to lead Labour to defeat, whereas a messy leadership contest was by no means certain.

Mandelson by then knew that Labour would lose under Brown. “Surely you know we can’t win with Gordon as leader?” a colleague asked him last year. To which the reply was, “Do you think I’m mad? Do you think I don’t realise that?” But Mandelson was convinced that Labour couldn’t win a majority under any leader. His big strategic mistake was to overlook the possibility of winning enough parliamentary seats to be able to govern in coalition with the Lib Dems.

As for the limping government under Brown, one senior member of his Cabinet recalls, “Jesus, it was terrible! It got worse and worse and worse.” And presiding over it all was the figure of Baron Mandelson of Hoy in the County of Herefordshire and of Hartlepool in the County of Durham, First Secretary of State, Lord President of the Council, President of the Board of Trade and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. How could he not be grateful to Brown for furnishing him with such trappings? He was like a much-favoured Tudor courtier, stooping under the weight of his gold chains and medallions.

It didn’t look good then and it doesn’t look good now. The man who ensured that Labour would spend five, possibly 10, years out of power now hopes to capitalise on his tales of those torrid years in government. We are told that the book portrays Brown as “seriously unhinged”. Some gratitude, that. If Mandelson is prepared to betray Brown for money now, perhaps he should have done so for the sake of his party two years ago.

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