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.

Subscription offer: Get 12 issues for just £12 PLUS a free copy of "The Idea of Justice" by Amartya Sen.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.