What we’ve learned from Mandelson’s memoir

Which Lib Dems would have made it into Gordon Brown’s cabinet and why Tony Blair was unambiguously o

The "news" that Nick Clegg demanded Gordon Brown's head as the price of a Lab-Lib coalition will come as a surprise to almost no one, though it's the first time we've had this story confirmed by one of the negotiators.

But the Times's serialisation of Peter Mandelson's memoir The Third Man (an important test case for the paywall) still contains much of note. Top of the list is the revelation that Tony Blair was unambiguously opposed to a deal between the two parties.

According to Mandelson, Blair said: "There will be an outcry if we stay on . . . There's going to be another election, and we'll be smashed if we don't make the right judgements." He later warned that it would be a "constitutional outrage" for Labour to remain in office. Perhaps it's not surprising that Blair, who won three consecutive elections, was unsympathetic to calls for his party to cling on to power.

We also learn that Mandelson, an exceptionally perceptive politician, was one of the few Labour figures to recognise the significance of David Cameron's "big, comprehensive offer" to the Lib Dems:

I was almost alone in our ranks in being impressed. Gordon and his team told me they felt it was a mistaken show of weakness, given that the Tories had won the largest number of seats. To me, it sounded like the new politics. In the past, I had felt that Cameron was not bold enough about changing his party. But now he was acting boldly, and if he pulled off a deal with the Lib Dems the alliance would offer him a renewed prospect of delivering a changed perception of his party.

The growing evidence that Cameron views the coalition not as an alliance of convenience, but as a vehicle to realign British politics, suggests that this interpretation was right.

In a helpful bit of PR, it was also Mandelson who ordered Brown to stop referring to Nick Clegg's party as the "Liberals". "If you're serious perhaps you should stop calling them the Liberals and get their name right," he said.

Finally, we learn which Lib Dems would have made it into Brown's new cabinet. Mandelson writes: "He envisaged Nick being in charge of constitutional reform, Chris Huhne at Energy, David Laws at Culture, Media and Sport, and Paddy Ashdown as Defence Secretary." Vince Cable would have been given "an economic portfolio".

One of the ironies of all this is that it was Brown, in the early, hopeful days of his premiership, who first invited Lib Dems to join the cabinet.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn faces a dilemma as Brexit solidifies: which half of his voters should he disappoint?

He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club.

Imagine a man who voted to leave the European Economic Community in 1975. A man who spoke out against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, saying that it “takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers”. A man who voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.

You don’t have to imagine very hard, because that man is Jeremy Corbyn. When campaigning for the Labour leadership in 2015, he told a GMB hustings, “I would ­advocate a No vote if we are going to get an imposition of free-market policies across Europe.”

When Labour’s Brexiteers gathered to launch their campaign in 2016, several seemed hurt that Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, were not there with them. “It is surprising, when we voted against the advice of the chief whip on a number of European issues over the last decades, that Jeremy and John, who have always been in that lobby with us, that they would want to lead a campaign that isn’t even asking for a renegotiated position,” said the MP Graham Stringer.

I mention this because since the election campaign started in April, I keep having an odd experience – people insisting that Corbyn is not a Eurosceptic, and that he will use Labour’s new-found strength to argue for a softer Brexit. Others claim that Labour’s current position on freedom of movement (ending it) is the obvious, common-sense – even progressive – choice.

This matters. Look, if the evidence above doesn’t convince you that the Labour leader is intensely relaxed about exiting the European Union, I don’t know what else would. Yet it’s clear that some Labour activists strongly identify personally with Corbyn: they find it hard to believe that he holds different opinions from them.

The second factor is the remaking of Brexit as a culture war, where to say that someone is a Eurosceptic is seen as a kind of slur. Perhaps without realising it, some on the left do associate Euroscepticism with Little Englanderism or even flat-out racism, and see it as a moral failing rather than a political position.

But I’m not impugning Jeremy Corbyn’s character or morals by saying that he is an instinctive Brexiteer. He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club. You can disagree with that premise but it’s a respectable line of reasoning.

Also, the Euroscepticism of Corbyn and his allies will undoubtedly give them an advantage in the months ahead; they are not consumed by fatalism, and the members of McDonnell’s shadow Treasury team feel that the removal of European state aid restrictions can help revive ailing bits of the British economy. They have a vision of what an ideal “Labour Brexit” would be – and it’s not just sobbing and begging Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel to take us back.

We do, however, need a reality check. Now that the necessary humble pie has been eaten, Labour’s unexpected revival at the ballot box means we can begin to treat Corbyn as a normal politician – with the emphasis on the second word. He’s not the Messiah, but he’s not a joke either. He is a charismatic campaigner who is willing to compromise on second-tier issues to achieve his main objectives.

From the general election, we can see just how good a campaigner Corbyn is: he can fire up a crowd, give disciplined answers to interviewers and chat amiably on a sofa. That throws into sharp relief just how limp his performances were last year.

He might have little else in common with Theresa May, but they both looked at the EU referendum and thought: yeah, I’m going to sit this one out. He called on activists to accept the EU “warts and all”; and said he was “seven, or seven and a half” out of ten in favour of staying in it.

For both leaders, this was a pragmatic decision. May did not want to be overtly disloyal to David Cameron, but neither did she wish to risk her career if the result went the other way.

Anyone in Labour would have been equally sane to look north of the border and back to 2014, and remember just how much credibility the party immolated by sharing stages with the Conservatives and allowing itself to be seen as the establishment. By limiting his involvement in the Remain campaign and whipping his MPs to trigger Article 50, Corbyn ended up with a fudge that gave Labour some cover in heavily pro-Brexit regions of the country.

That’s the politics, but what about the principle? I can’t shake the feeling that if Corbyn campaigned as hard for Remain in 2016 as he did for Labour in 2017, we would still be members of the European Union. And that matters to me, as much as left-wing policies or a change in the rhetoric around migrants and welfare claimants, because I think leaving the EU is going to make us poorer and meaner.

That’s why I worry that many of my friends, and the activists I talk to, are about to be disappointed, after waiting and waiting for Labour to start making the case for a softer Brexit and for the single market being more important than border controls. As Michael Chessum, a long-standing Momentum organiser, wrote on the New Statesman website, “Recognising the fact that immigration enriches society is all very well, but that narrative is inevitably undermined if you then choose to abolish the best policy for allowing immigration to happen.”

Labour’s success on 8 June was driven by its ambiguous stance on Brexit. To Leavers, it could wink at ending freedom of movement when they worried about immigration; to Remainers, it offered a critique of the immigrant-bashing rhetoric of recent times. But can that coalition hold as the true shape of Brexit solidifies? Over the next few months, Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest decision will be this: which half of my voters should I disappoint?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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