Unlike the political memoirs that promise to tell all this book tells only what its author means it too, and thank goodness for it is already a long book for such a tale. Lord Mandelson is a Marmite man, and many (including many of my fellow reviewers) really dislike him. I have less of an opinion on the man than they. I find him witty but with that element of control that hints at more interesting views. But most of us will be unable to judge the balance of his story of the New Labour years and his part in them. It is a tale of three chums each with a weakness, a bargain that pleased none and the perpetual bickering and failure that followed from it. If it wasn't recounted in such detail it would be a good sketch for a Shakespearean play ("Three Unwise Gentlemen of Westminster", perhaps). But of course personal tragedy, with its interest in the many details of slights and reconciliations has to be recounted in detail if it is to be cathartic. Whether or not this is a true account I think it will overstay its welcome with all but the real political fan or election enthusiasts like me. However, I did enjoy it.
William Hague once joked in the House of Commons that the only title that Lord Mandelson lacked under the Brown Government was that of Archbishop. Perhaps the only reason for this is that Mandelson's "Jesuit like fervour" thus far has been generally been lavished on politics, although nothing should be ruled out. Love him or hate him Peter Mandelson is the consummate politician and media showman. Watching interviews by him in support of the book he is still playing down the level of visceral hatred that consumed the New Labour Project but for every one page of analysis in "The Third Man" there are at least another twenty which highlight the cronic dysfunction and the bitter tribalist soap opera that consumed British Government since 1997. Reading this book you sense clearly that Mandelson was at his "best" as the spinmiester starting work for Neil Kinnock, then as one of the architects of New Labour. He was of course at that time the man with the terrible moustache, not yet outed by Matthew Parris but the with a fearsome reputation building as a late 20th Century Machiavelli as he intimidated the media and other politicians but combined this with a sinister charm and waspish wit. His ability to think on his feet is clearly second to none, but it comes no where near to his plotting skills and you forget how closely he came in 2008 to destroying George Osborne in the Oleg Deripaska affair.
Of the two great protagonists in the "Third Man" allegedly Tony Blair is happy with Mandelson's portrayal. Yet it is far from sympathetic, indeed Blair is portrayed as a man bent on action but someone who was fundamentally weak when it came to dealing with Brown and his supporters. Blair's announcement of additional spending on health on the BBC led to a volcanic reaction from his Chancellor and a counter cabinet which constantly micro managed Blair's ambition on public services reform through the prism of the Treasury. On the other great drama Mandelson was a bit player when it came to the Iraq War and his insights about the failure to plan the rebuilding/recovery phase are of limited interest. But what is fascinating is that more than Blair it is Mandelson's relationship with his nemesis Gordon Brown that is at the heart of this book. Mandelson describes Brown as "hair-raisingly difficult to work with", almost "impossible to advise" and these are some of the friendlier comments. As such Mandelson's attempt to justify the greatest feat of political hatchet burying in modern politics is explained in the following terms "We had been through too much together since the founding days of the modernising avant-garde to relapse into sulkiness or acrimony. We had come to understand each other again. We respected each other. We liked each other.".
Do we believe him? The answer is of course we don't. Mandelson needed Brown in the same way that the Brown needed Mandelson, based not on friendship but pure political expediency, combined with the lustre of power and most of all the will to survive. Mandelson clearly knew that Brown's chances of winning a general election were almost zero. You smile when you read that in response to Harriet Harman's suggestion of "future, family and fairness" as the strap line for Labours campaign of 2010, Peter Mandelson suggested an alternative to a meeting with Alastair Darling and Douglas Alexander that they replace the words with "futile", "finished", and "f**k*d".
Everything about this book is controversial. Its title the "Third Man" sticks another two fingers up at his old enemy and newly enshrined fellow member of the Lords, John Prescott (or "Two Ermine's" as he is now known). Its timing after May 2010 is particularly raw and it comes "smack bang" into the epicentre of a incredibly dull Labour leadership contest which cannot hope to compete with the revelations of this supreme master media manipulator. It also acts as the overture for what will be the main opera when Tony Blair releases his own autobiography "A Journey" in September. Finally one imagines that over the past week a minor earthquake may have registered on the Richter scale in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath as Gordon Brown MP reads Mandelson's weighty tome. You suspect that while Mandelson may be the "Third Man" and that his story is well told (if sometimes in very cringeworthy terms) this is a three act drama that has yet to fully unfold and the political dagger that hangs over the New Labour project may yet to be fully drawn.
on 20 August 2010
I decided that I wanted to read an account of the New Labour years following the recent change in Government. After some debate, I decided to go for this book over the various other main contenders for a few reasons. Firstly, I didn't have the patience to wait for Blairs, secondly, I simply couldn't believe I would get any sort of frank account from one of the Alistair Campbell ones. Finally, I just had a gut feeling that this would be particularly honest and open in terms of the Blair/Brown relationship as I didn't see what motive Mr Mandelson would have for holding back, something not the case with the other authors I mentioned.
What a good decision this turned out to be. The account is very open, astonishingly so in places, and makes for an entertaining read, or should I say listen, as I actually had the audio CD version, which was if anything enhanced by Mandelson doing the reading.
As with any book, people need to read this and make up their own mind, but what really struck me about this was the sense that New Labour really never achieved what it promised due to the relationship between Blair/Brown, and I did sense genuine regret from Mandelson on this. Tony Blair actually comes across pretty well, but Gordon Brown comes across very poorly (if we are to believe this account and many others that support it). Mandelson provides strong evidence that for the first few years of power Mr Brown convinced himself he had been cheated out of the top job, which led to constant attempts to outmaneuver and undermine Blair, to the extent that it really did affect the success of New Labour. If there is one resounding conclusion you can draw from this, its that Blair should have had the decisiveness to address this issue firmly early on, but once this was left to ferment, it simply got worse and harder to deal with, which unfortunately it never was.
In summary, a frank account, which if you can look past a touch too much self justification, is a surprisingly honest and entertaining read, made even better if you go for the audio book route.
At his book's title suggests, Peter Mandelson does not hold back in these memoirs from placing himself not only at the heart of New Labour but also at its top, variously using the phrases the three musketeers or the triumvirate to describe himself and the two Prime Ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Mandelson is also, alongside Peter Watt and Deborah Mattinson, part of another trio - Labour insiders who have recently published their account of life in New Labour. They all scatter some compliments about Brown through their books, but the overall picture painted of Gordon Brown is a deeply unflattering one. It's a picture of a once talented politician and strategic thinker who spent over a decade in a sulk at not becoming Labour leader, frequently indulging in highly partisan infighting and repeatedly pushing to one side policy priorities as so many at the top of Labour were consumed with trying to keep the Blair-Brown show from completely imploding.
As Mandelson records it, even Gordon Brown (speaking to him in 2008) admitted, "`It was all so wretched between us all - you, me, Tony. It was so wasteful! We could have achieved so much more. We still did a lot, though. Perhaps surprisingly.' `I agree,' I replied. `What on earth were we doing? We doubted each other. We read everything into each other's motives and actions.' He was right, I said. `You say everything we did through the prism of "We want to destroy you." We say everything you did through the prism of "You want Tony out." It was a sort of mutually assured destruction'."
The picture of a Labour Party deeply split and distracted by this personality politics is not new, and was previously painted by journalists such as Andrew Rawnsley and James Naughtie. Mandelson adds vivid colour and details, however, as when Blair said that Brown required "massive therapy" to get over not being leader or when Fiona Miller writes that, "I'd be disgusted if my children behaved the way [Brown] does". One attempt to patch up the Brown-Blair disputes even resulted in a remarkable agreement to set up a "hotline system"; as Mandelson says this "sounded more like an arms pact" than an agreement between the two most senior figures in a political party.
What is new is the blame being placed almost completely on Brown through the accounts of him given in all three books. Mandelson's version gives some indication of how future pro-Brown accounts may look to repair this damage to his Gordon Brown's reputation. Did Brown repudiate Blair's ideas to reform public services because they were Blair's policies or because they weren't properly thought out and weren't Labour enough? The former clearly played a significant role, but perhaps future accounts will look to stress the latter rather more. In the meantime, it is Brown's reputation - and so indirectly that too of his keenest supporters - which takes a battering.
Mandelson offers some insights into why Brown failed as Prime Minister, suggesting that the mode of working which suited him well at the Treasury was disastrously ill-suited to 10 Downing Street. As Chancellor Brown had a very fluid diary, his own attention darting back and forth between issues, but within the constrains that he only concentrated on a relatively small number of big events during the year, such as the Budget. A Prime Minister cannot similarly keep the number of big issues passing over their desk to such a small number and that much heavier flow, combined with the continuing frequent changing of diaries and flitting of attention made for a hopelessly slow, cumbersome and indecisive decision-making process. Issues came, went and came back again with added levels of micro-management in lieu of clear strategic decision making.
Arguments over Brown are matters for history now. Mattering rather more for the immediate future of the Labour Party is how the reputation of its leadership candidates emerge. Ed Balls's role at the centre of Brown's infighting cabal is already well known. What Mandelson's book also emphasises (and coming from someone who has made a career out of having to choose words carefully, it is hard to believe this is accidental) is how central Ed Miliband also was to the Brown and Balls set-up.
Even back in 1997 Gordon Brown was running his own parallel election campaign structure, with Ed Miliband one of the key players in this private unauthorised operation that dogged the footsteps of the party's official campaign under Blair ordered that it ceased.
By contrast, his brother David gets a generally complimentary write-up, with Mandelson often praising his skills and giving an account of events that places David Miliband's decisions not to challenge Brown as the end results of careful and reasonable thought rather than as the result of a lack of courage at the big moments.
Mandelson's account contains a series of rebuttals of hostile accounts others have given of his actions at various times in his career, with Alastair Campbell being painted as ill-informed and blundering in this book's account of Mandelson's second resignation as a result of the Hinduja passport affair. Whether or not you find them convincing largely depends on your broader view of the people involved because when given conflicting personal accounts, there's no outside evidence on which to judge which is true.
Peter Mandelson is not without criticism of his own actions, though they are in the general without specific examples conceded save in the case of his first resignation where he admits to at least a significant lapse of his political judgement in not seeing a problem with taking a loan from Geoffrey Robinson.
The most interesting, and hardest to judge, parts of the book are Mandelson's account of what went on inside his own head. In the end no-one else can know for sure how true or accurate his account of his inner psychology is. There are some touches of inconsistency with other people's accounts and between Mandelson's own words which act as a reminder that the book is not just about what Mandelson did in the past but how he will be remembered in the future.
One such inconsistency even occurs within the book where Mandelson both plays down his role in ensuring Gordon Brown was not ousted following James Purnell's 2009 resignation and yet also later describes how he went into "overdrive" at that time.
Despite these doubts it makes for an at time fascinating account of the psychological pressures on those at the top in politics and the degree to which events are about how personalities cope with pressures rather than about simple academic weighing of policy options. As Mandelson summarises his own view of politics, and seeks to explain his hostility yet loyalty to Brown, "Perhaps it is a fault to cling too dogmatically to an idea or a policy, but not, in my view, to a person to whom you have made a commitment".
The degree to which New Labour did not stick dogmatically to previous ideas is demonstrated by Mandelson's account of when he first was impressed by Tony Blair in the 1980s. It was an appearance on Question Time - where Blair laid into the Conservatives for undermining civil liberties. By the end of his time as Prime Minister, Blair had so comprehensively gone much, much further on civil liberties that the Conservatives were left the liberal defenders of civil liberties to Labour's right-wing authoritarianism.
The origin of Brown's reputation is also laced with historic irony, as Mandelson accounts on the following page. Brown's stand-in role responding to the government's autumn financial statement in 1988 was a virtuoso display of political rhetoric laying into a Conservative government which, he said, had overseen irresponsible levels of borrowing and only superficial economic success for it was "a boom based on credit". The same speech that made Brown's national reputation could also act as its epitaph.
As for Mandelson's own political future, he has been such a colourful and influential character that it holds a general interest across politics. More specifically, for the Liberal Democrats he presents himself in the book as in favour of the Alternative Vote, generally welcoming the idea of Lib-Lab cooperation and even the man who prompted Gordon Brown to drop the childish/lazy (delete to choice) use of "Liberal" and to start using "Liberal Democrat" if he was serious about wanting to strike a deal with the party. Those attitudes could yet turn out to be important to the future of British politics.
on 26 August 2010
How you hear things in politics depends where you stand. Mandy heard things from "the heart of New Labour" not as a dispassionate third man but as a fully committed protagonist. In the ceaseless jockeying for power between Blair and Brown he sides with Tony and paints Gordon as curmudgeonly, unco-operative and clever. Yet as PM Gordon needed Mandy's help and brought him back to prominence for an unprecedented third time, which only goes to show Mandelson's skill as a slippery smooth manipulator who played characters and events to his own advantage - that is, he would say, to the advantage of his country and his beloved New Labour. No wonder Bush called him "Silver Tongue".
This is a gripping tale from the days of making Labour again electable after the misuse of Union power and the countrywide Thatcherite drift to the Right up to the nail-biting horse-trading of the coalition a few months ago. It gets down to the specifics of wielding power from the viewpoint of Mandy's monstrous ego, yet with brief acknowledgements that he is merely mortal, though more mortal than most. I liked the passages on his childhood after being "born into Labour" and I liked his affection for his Brussels posting.
It could have been written with more colour even though there are colourful characters on every page and the Blair/Brown contest gets a bit repetitive. But as a personalised diary of the minutae of important political events it stands out as a must read.
on 1 February 2012
Having read and heard a great deal over the years,it was useful and enjoyable to hear the man speak for himself, and place a spin on the events that affected his life,as well as the spin he managed for Tony Blair, and the Labour Party-or New Labour. The book was candid,and gave a perspective on the main characters that dominated Labour politics throughout the late 20th century, and the early noughties.Peter Mandelson seemed to have played a huge role in shaping the Labour Party,and in its final election in 1997,and its continued success through until 2010.As one would expect from a politician he plays down the incidents of his resignations, and does not really blame himself, which is understandable as the evidence does not sound totally convincing, but then he is an expert on spin.
I enjoyed the book,as anything that gives an insight into momentous events is an important read. Peter Mandelson's book gives scope for thought and reflection,and gives an insiders view of the murky role of politics in society in general,not just the UK.Required reading
After a brief Introduction, in which Mandelson blames a lot of his troubles on his loyalty to Brown and Blair, and lists the familiar claims of New Labour's achievements, there are background chapters on his early years as a member of a privileged left-wing family in North London. But the book takes off with his initiation into politics and the start of his controversial career as a highly successful backroom `fixer'. Right from the start, it is clear that Mandelson is out to stake his claim of parity with Brown and Blair in creating New Labour, defining its policies, and steering it to election victories. He emphasizes that that he `discovered' the duo and was the first to recognize their talents and potential for high office. The three of them became `brothers'. This didn't last long after New Labour gained power and we now know about the fierce and corrosive war that was waged between Blair and Brown, with Mandelson often in the latter's sights for his perceived `betrayal' in supporting Blair. This is discussed fully, but most of the details have already appeared in Andrew Rawnsley's recent book `The End of the Party'.
Given that the author was the supreme `spin doctor' of New Labour, a reader has to decide how much of this book to believe. Many details confirm what Rawnsley has reported, although Mandelson's version puts himself in the best light. However, there are places where he is disingenuous. For example: his strong denial that there was any connection between the peerage given to Lord Levy and the fact that he was Tony Blair's fundraiser, while admitting that Levy `held out for a peerage' after he was told it would be too soon; and his explanation of why he failed to disclose to either his senior civil servant or a building society a loan from Geoffrey Robinson to buy a house. There are new details about the about the final days of New Labour and events leading up to the 2010 General Election - how Brown refused to budge from his entrenched position that growth was the only way out of the severe economic problems and how he resisted all efforts from his colleagues to take seriously spending cuts or an increase in VAT - but this is a small part of the book.
Then there is what is not in the book. There is very little about foreign policy and Iraq, the event that, rightly or wrongly, will really be Blair's legacy, and no discussion of whether New Labour's economic and financial policies might have contributed to our present debt-ridden state. And of course there is almost nothing about Mandelson's closely guarded private life. To be fair, the sub-title of the book is `Life at the Heart of New Labour', but then why include chapters on his early family life, and why disclose very personal information about a former partner's sex life?
Overall, I found this a disappointing book that adds very little to what is already known about the New Labour years and the style lacks the sparkle of Rawnsley's book. The Labour Party may now `love Peter Mandelson', as Blair wanted and Mandelson believes, but it has not altered my view that the 'Prince of Darkness' has not changed.
on 20 July 2010
Peter Mandleson's hastily published memoir of the rise and fall of New Labour has been seriously overhyped.
"The Third Man" is devoid of shocking, new revelations or truly wicked character assassinations. Mandelson indulges in no historical reflections or philosophical musings ; his book is empty of insights into either politics or human nature. It is written in undemanding, plain vanilla prose: readable enough, but not worth reading.
The Machiavelli of Millbank does little here to expose himself, unless occasionally unconsciously. The full story of New Labour remains to be told. Meanwhile, this book - long, expensive and lacking in substance - is a perfect metaphor for both its subject and its author.
on 15 July 2010
Lord Voldermort, played in this novel by Peter Mandelson, takes over the muggle world and rules for 13 years before Harry Cameron's wizard and muggle coalition ousts him in a battle for control of the Ministry of Magic.
Ok - that is not what this book is about at all, but the self styled Dark Lord does manage to do the dirty on his former friends and blow the lid off the open secret about the breakdown and growing rivalry between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown during the New Labour years. Unsurprisingly, Tony Blair is reportedly livid at this expose, but perhaps moreso because the frank honesty here will dampen enthusiasm for his own political memoirs. Maybe Tony Blair is most annoyed that Mandelson beat him to it.
The book is well written, frank and attempts to be honest. It covers a whole lot more than the Tony/Gordon spats, starting earlier and ranging more widely. But it is also obviously (being a political memoir) heavily coloured by the experience and mind set of Peter Mandelson himself. The thrice disgraced politician styles himself as the Third Man in the New Labour marriage, and who can dispute that interpretation when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown felt it so important to keep landing him with plum jobs in Government at home and in Europe?
This book is self reflective too. Someone as politically astute as Peter Mandelson would be bound to write in a self effacing manner that ought to win over less cynical readers. More cynical ones might feel that he just wants to sell books and knows how not to annoy his readers.
But then it comes down to this: who buys these political memoirs? Who really cares? All the really salacious details are already appearing in newspapers, and do we really discover much about the man who is Peter Mandelson in this carefully crafted book?
I think the answer is yes - we do. A little. Also, even though so much of this book will appear in print elsewhere, it is an annoyingly addictive read. Annoying because we know that Mandelson is just out to make a quick buck. Better histories of New Labour will appear by less partisan political observers (although they will use this book as a primary source no doubt). But in some ways this story is almost as good as reading about the dark days of Lord Voldermort, even if - unlike Peter Mandelson - you will be cheering for Harry Cameron and Nick Weasley in the end.
on 11 June 2011
I have only managed to get half way through the audio book.
I am surpised at the utter self-interest, self promotion and blind love of the party that Mandelson demonstrates. I really wanted him to be different from his parents, the Blairs and to do his own thing, but he doesn't and he hasn't.
But what's REALLY driving me nuts and is delaying me listening until the end is his 'wet' mouth; it's as if he's got loads of saliva spare, just slushing around as he speaks, it's terribly distracting and yucky.
I'm saving the final discs for my next trek to Cornwall if I can bear it.
Despite the excess fluid it is interesting, but can only be absorbed gradually.