Could this be Peter’s last waltz?
In his new book, The Third Man, Peter Mandelson talks about his time in Northern Ireland, his family and why he politely refused Gerry Adams’ offer to find him a dog. But what now for him, asks Jane Hardy
Published 20/07/2010 | 11:16
If history is usually written by the victors, political history is written by the survivors. One of the greatest survivors of modern politics, Peter, now Lord Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool, has just delivered his insider's view of the rise and fall of New Labour in a fascinating memoir, The Third Man.
He really is the ultimate comeback kid (a term he uses himself) as Mandelson survived being twice kicked out of Cabinet, once for a justified misdemeanour involving undeclared mortgage help, once for a fabricated error, only to return last year as the hoped for saviour of Gordon Brown's fortunes, an ultimately hopeless task.
What has kept Peter Mandelson going, and enabled him to remain in the game like some latterday Margaret Thatcher figure going on and on?
“I have staying power, that was bred into me. Also I’m a very loyal member of the Labour Party and would never walk away from it, so I didn’t,” he reveals.
Clearly, though, the injustice still rankles as he adds: “I have a very strong sense of injustice. The media made up its mind before the truth emerged, and everybody else’s minds, and the rest is history.
“Although being appointed to the European Commission in Brussels half made up for it, I didn’t realise how deeply it had eaten into me until I was asked back into Government.”
This was the undue influence scandal that abruptly removed Mandelson from his Cabinet seat in charge of Northern Ireland in January 2001. He remembers his time in the province with warmth.
“I liked Northern Ireland very much, and would always feel I could return. I made good friendships which my sudden departure affected but I have nothing but good memories.
“The work was very challenging and important but relentless, yet I associate the weekends at Hillsborough with relaxation.”
As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland from 1999 to 2001, a critical time following the Good Friday Agreement, Peter Mandelson was equally loved and hated.
Some commentators have implied that he was too keen to implement that Patten Report on policing, and that this set back the peace process.
He becomes almost angry at this suggestion, saying: “Of course I was happy with the shift, I implemented it.”
During these years, Mandelson was again the third man in a triumvirate that included David Trimble and Gerry Adams. Although the general perception is that Mo Mowlam, his predecessor, was slightly more pro-republican and that he was slightly more pro-unionist by instinct, in fact Mandelson appears to have got on well with Mr Adams.
There is a nice anecdote in the book, revealing that Adams suggested Peter Mandelson get a dog, as he found walking his dog helpful when thinking.
When he offered to find the Secretary of State a canine companion, Mandelson politely declined, imagining security might worry about the possibility of a recording device inserted in its paw.
He says now, sounding quite cheerful: “I got on fine with Gerry Adams, although nothing is easy and there was quite a bit of temper and temperament in all these people and in our relationships. Although Gerry and Martin played hard cop and harder cop — I don’t remember any soft cops — and used to beat me up a lot (metaphorically), it was all part of the times.”
Peter adds: “I come from the political school of hard knocks and wasn’t discombobulated.”
On David Trimble, Mandelson the consummate politician is equally generous. “In my famous phrase, I always regarded David Trimble as a fighter, not a quitter. The problems for David were the problems of unionism itself,” he says.
“He was always under pressure within and without his party. In the end, just as I could see Sinn Fein outmanoeuvring the SDLP, the same thing was happening on the other side.”
The chapter on Northern Ireland, significantly part of the Being Fired section, reveals quite a bit of the man who has a range of media nicknames from Mandy to the Prince of Darkness to a “pussycat” — his own description.
Naturally, the high point here for Mandelson was the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Inevitably, it progressed in fits and starts but you can’t change things overnight.”
Peter Mandelson says he feels the peace process is now well bedded down. Tactfully, he won’t comment on the so-called recreational rioting after the Twelfth, except to say in that famous steely purr: “I would never comment from afar on what’s being done by a tiny minority to indulge a tiny minority against the wishes of the majority.”
Clearly, leaving wasn’t his choice as living the country gentleman’s life, riding, visiting the seaside and country, rather suited him. He notes that being in Northern Ireland “never felt like being in another country, unlike Scotland after devolution”.
Mandelson mentions later that “going to the country has always transformed my mood” and adds that he was in tears when he sold his beloved two-up, two-down cottage in Foy.
On the handover with Mo Mowlam, he briskly dismisses the idea that she was badly treated. “I'm not suggesting she wanted to keep the job, but she didn't want to move to an alternative,” he says. “She felt she should be moving to a very senior post, but one wasn't available to her.
“She could have been the first directly elected mayor of London, but didn't want to, she was offered the Department of Health but didn't fancy that. In the end, the Minister to the Cabinet Office was offered, but she didn't want that.”
Reaction to the book has been mixed, to say the least, with the Labour hierarchy apparently “spitting”, to quote the Times. The Milibands, Ed and David, have come snapping out of their corner of the leadership contest to pronounce that he should move on, that he has written a “destructive and self-destructive” memoir (David).
John Prescott, now also ennobled, in an unusually sharp phrase called its subject the “prattle of politics”.
Mandelson admits that there is a soap opera aspect to it all, and he's right.
Reading about how Gordon said “Can you help me?” to Peter as the opinion polls reached meltdown, while Tony was constantly texting and Alastair was bitching and Gordon was fuming and David Miliband was offering his twopence halfpenny is almost novelettish. One reviewer said these politicians behaved like teenage girls.
Yet Mandelson firmly rebuts accusations of shallowness and spin, even though he is known as something of a master of the dark art. “‘Spin’ is a word in my active vocabulary,” he says, and you can hear the smile in his voice, “but this book will be known for a particular lack of spin. I could have written the typical ministerial memoir, saying everything was good and that ministers were on top of everything. But you can’t write memoirs like that in this internet age when everything is known and people can look behind the curtain.”
A tad defensively, Lord Mandelson said he started out with the intention of telling the truth, but that “some people” seemed to find that too revelatory, too graphic. “But you can’t tell the proper story unless you tell the whole story.”
The whole story doesn't involve the famous deal on whether Gordon Brown would defer to more electable Tony Blair for the top job but step down to give his Chancellor a stint at Number Ten at an agreed moment. That is because it didn't happen like that — Mandelson writes, “despite the later mythology that grew up around that night in Granita (restaurant), there was never any question of an assurance that Tony would step aside in Gordon's favour at an agreed future date”.
The Third Man was rushed out ahead of Tony Blair's own memoir A Journey, mooted to have earned him £4.6m, and Peter Mandelson will now no doubt be able to acquire another country cottage.
Mandelson seems determined to show that two out of the three architects of New Labour, dubbed the Three Musketeers by lobby journalists, remain on pally terms. He showed Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby a more or less approving text from the man he describes as his friend, when appearing on the This Morning sofa last week.
You sense that the inevitable fury that must have invaded the Brown camp after they read of Gordon's failings in some detail doesn't bother him that much.
On the personal front, the 56-year-old is at a good place in spite of Labour’s defeat.
Living in London “with a partner ... but I won’t discuss that as I’m the one in public life”, Peter Mandelson describes himself as a child of the 1950s, someone who enjoys reading a book (with James Bond a favourite), singing and dancing.
This is no surprise since one of the most cheering moments of the General Election was the sight of Lord Mandelson being strong-armed onto a dance floor in Blackpool by supporter Hannah Rita-Mackenzie (pictured on Page 19.
“I can't remember who swept whom off their feet, but the problem was I am quite tall and she's not a tall lady. But we got used to the discrepancy and it was fun,” he says. Amazingly for a man so light on his feet, Mandelson never took ballroom dancing lessons at home in Hampstead Garden Suburb.
For one thing, he was too busy setting up the Hendon Young Socialists.
But later at Oxford, while studying philosophy, politics and economics, he took classes in another form of dance. “My friend Venetia (Porter, with whom he shared a house) and I learnt rock ‘n’ roll.”
I ask him whether he'd reapply for Strictly Come Dancing, to which he offered his services when John Sergeant withdrew because of overpopularity and a skill deficit. After all, the man would easily win.
“Oh no, they had their chance, then just offered me a seat for the final, I think the moment’s gone,” he says. “I'm an amateur in spirit, you know, and that probably applies to other areas of my life.”
On the current incumbents of Number 10, the house he first visited as a boy with his mother, Mandelson is fairly complimentary.
“Impressed? I don't think impressed is quite the word I'd use in relation to Cameron, who's better presentationally than in terms of policy,” he says. “I think the coalition's future depends on how the vote on changing our voting system goes next year.
“If the Conservatives campaign vigorously against it, as they say they will, and the Lib Dems do badly, that will shake the coalition. Having said that, in straight political terms, it's off to a good start,” he adds.
One question being asked, which makes the Opposition's job of opposing more difficult, is just what Labour planned to do about Britain's deficit, variously described as anything from £100bn to three trillion.
The instant retort comes back: “We said exactly what we'd do in the manifesto, making £80bn of
public cuts. It isn't going to be easy.”
In the Lords, Lord Mandelson rubs ermine shoulders with a host of Ulster peers. Did he get on well with Ian Paisley, who famously ran the Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign in the 70s.
He adds: “I didn't see an awful lot of him as the DUP were boycotting negotiations, but when I did meet him, we got on fine. Northern Ireland is rather well represented in the House of Lords.
“I see David Trimble who's a regular attender and it's nice to bump into Baroness Blood and Robin Eames.”
During our conversation, the steel is only in evidence a couple of times, when discussing the shift from the RUC to the PSNI.
Overall, there is charm and touches of an understandable fatigue in somebody working the media circus like a pro.
When Peter Mandelson's book was officially launched in London, members of his family attended, including his niece Leonie.
“I'm an uncle to her, and I also had a nephew, who died aged 20. I'm actually a great-uncle as she has two girls. Am I a doting uncle?
“Well, I'm not the sort of man to have flags on birthdays in the diary, but I think I am quite generous.”
Asked what he's going to do next, he simply says: “Good question.” As the man says, he's a fighter, not a quitter. Quite often on the winning side.
The Third Man by Peter Mandelson, Harper Press, £25