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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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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