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.