Peter Mandelson’s memoirs may have achieved the impossible: kick started the rehabilitation of Gordon Brown’s political reputation. By rushing into print while the wounds of defeat are still raw, by cashing in shamelessly on his insider knowledge and displaying breath-taking disloyalty, Mandelson hasn’t just discredited himself. He has raised fundamental questions about Tony Blair’s integrity. For a start, he reveals that Blair really did promise to step aside for Gordon and then went back on his word.
The Third Man contains the most authoritative account of The Deal that was supposed to have been struck in 1994 in the Granita restaurant, but which actually took place in John Prescott’s flat in Trafalgar Square in 2003. Tony Blair said he would go by 2005 provided Brown supported him until then. Blair’s failure to deliver on his promise drove Brown demented with frustrated ambition. He became in Blair’s now famous words: “mad, bad, dangerous and totally beyond redemption.” But Blair emerges from Peter Mandelson’s grim fairy story as a rather weak and unreliable leader, over-dependent on news management and prepared to sacrifice his closest friends for the sake of a few headlines.
The Third Man confirms much that we already knew about shouting matches, abuse, paranoia and infighting at the highest level of government under New Labour. Like a crowd of drama queens at an awards ceremony they bitched and scratched. But there is little doubt, reading between the lines, that Brown, for all his temper tantrums, was the intellectual powerhouse of New Labour. When you list the achievements of the Labour years – Bank of England independence, the windfall tax, minimum wage, tax credits, comprehensive spending review, devolution – you are essentially talking about Gordon Brown. Tony Blair’s contribution – apart from starting illegal wars – was supposed to have been reforming public services, but he never really got the market reforms he wanted in the English NHS and schools.
Brown vigorously challenged the reasoning behind establishing semi-privatised “foundation hospitals” and disrupting the comprehensive system in education in England. Where was the accountability? he asked. How will you guarantee value for money, maintain standards? Mandelson makes clear that Brown wasn’t averse to reform, and certainly wasn’t hostile to the market, but Blair’s ideas were always “vague”. He wanted to end the “monopolistic”, top down provision of public services but he didn’t really know how to do it without privatising them.
Mandelson recounts the massive and almost terminal row between Blair and Brown over university top up fees in 2004 which Labour had ruled out in its election manifesto. Blair was convinced that Brown was using this as a means of destroying him. Perhaps, but Brown resisted the policy primarily because many Labour MPs were instinctively opposed to tuition fees on egalitarian grounds, and so was he. I’ve no doubt that there were personal issues involved, and Brown felt betrayed over the leadership. But as anyone who has known or followed Gordon Brown over the last thirty years knows, he believes that argument matters and he fights when he thinks he’s right.. Blair was, like Peter Mandelson, essentially a salesman – an ad man – a highly gifted one, certainly, but a figure with little intellectual depth or grasp of policy detail. He tended to take his political lead from whatever Philip Gould’s focus groups were saying.
Blair’s essential problem with Brown, which Mandelson concedes, was that he couldn’t stand up to him intellectually or politically for much his time in office. He felt insecure and undermined by the “Mafioso” in Number 11. Well, I’m tempted to say: ‘too bad’. These are big boy rules. There was also a degree of cultural friction. This was a Scottish mafia. Brown emerged from a generation of Scottish social democrats who had come to dominate the Labour Party during the Thatcher years. Brown’s very style of conviction politics was inimical to the London media and advertising professionals who were the other side of the New Labour project. He was just too serious, couldn’t lighten up. He didn’t give up either.
But he knew what he was doing. Had Tony Blair still been in Number Ten when the credit crunch struck in 2008, he would have been forced to defer again to his rival. Brown really was the right man in the right place when he chaired the crucial G 20 meeting in London. Unfortunately, he was the wrong man in the wrong place in Number Ten, at least by the time he got there. As the Labour minister, John Hutton forecast, Brown was a “f***ing awful prime minister” when he finally took over. Brown’s inability to connect with the public, his dithering and his high frequency media management made him look driven and desperate. He was a man in a hurry who had run out of time and didn’t know what he stood for any more. Disasters like the election that never was, the ten p tax debacle and the Gillian Duffy “bigot” remark showed that if he’d ever had it, Brown had lost it. Brown’s personal failings became political: antagonised people and, according to Mandelson, the best civil servants refused to work for him.
But who knows, if Brown had taken the reins of power earlier, things might have been different. I can still remember Brown as the brilliant shadow chancellor taking on Nigel Lawson and demolishing successive Tory budgets before 1997. He was funny, engaging, articulate and sincere – qualities that deteriorated with time. by 2007, Gordon Brown was burnt out after a decade of micro-managing the economy and trying to get the leadership he’d been promised. That’s no excuse for Brown’s behaviour which, by all accounts, was bullying, irascible and thoughtless. But at this level of politics it is understandable, and it is not at all unusual. Look at any of the great political diaries: Alan Clark, Tony Benn, Richard Crossman and you will find accounts of intense and damaging personal rivalries. Richard Crossman said the Labour chancellor George Brown was “30% mad”. Harold Wilson famously said: “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get me”. Paranoia is par for the course among politicians at this level. It goes with the job. And in Tony Blair’s case it was compounded by having a chancellor who was too powerful to sack. Perhaps the real lesson is that absolute power corrupts absolutely, but not enough power drives you absolutely mad.