Monkey business in the north

Observations on Peter Mandelson

Harry Blackwood, the editor of the Hartlepool Mail, is on "sick leave". He is currently considering two job offers, one of them as a fitness instructor. New Labour must hope he doesn't take it, because it would keep him in his home town.

Blackwood's paper is read by the constituents of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson. The widespread view in the north-east is that he is being forced out of his job because of complaints by the two local MPs. Both deny that they exerted pressure on Roger Parry, the chairman of Johnston Press, which owns the Hartlepool Mail.

Why should Parry care about Blair and Mandelson? The answer is that Parry is also UK chief executive of Clear Channel, a US media conglomerate. Both it and Johnston Press have an interest in the Communications Bill now going through parliament. Blackwood, who kept a dossier, says Mandelson threatened to intervene in that legislative process if his head was not delivered on a plate.

This does not augur well for new Labour, especially as the Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, who successfully pursued Mandelson over the Hinduja brothers, is now on the case.

By most accounts, Blackwood's lively editorship had been a success. Tim Bowdler, Johnston's chief executive, has confirmed that Mandelson contacted him and Parry, and said that his complaints about the Mail's coverage "have been fully investigated and have not been upheld". The long-time local Labour Party president, Keith Fisher, says he told an investigating Johnston executive that Blackwood had always treated him fairly.

When Mandelson was forced to resign from the cabinet for a second time, the Mail asked readers their reaction. The article bore the headline: "We've had enough". Fair comment to most people, but not to the PM's pal apparently. Later, readers questioned the result of a referendum to set up a directly elected mayoralty. This was a Mandelson-backed new Labour initiative, and in neighbouring Sedgefield it was rejected. But in Hartlepool, there was a small majority in favour and the Mail reported the controversy over a surprising 9 per cent of ballot papers that were ruled invalid.

Then came the mayoral elections themselves. H'Angus the Monkey, an independent candidate, defeated the businessman Leo Gillen, the official Labour candidate and Mandelson's pal. The Mail's front page said: "Monkey is our Mayor . . . and Mandelson says it's the Mail's fault". The paper reported how the MP had berated Blackwood's deputy, Neil Hunter, after the count, in effect blaming the Mail for the result. It was not the first time, as many reporters know, that Mandelson had berated a journalist.

"We don't have a policy," Parry told Johnston executives and editors last year, "on the desirability or otherwise of electing spoof jungle animals as the mayor of industrial towns in the north-east. But there is a danger. What happens if one has axes to grind or a vendetta to pursue? We have a very strong view of the way the editorial job should be done."

Hartlepool Mail staff now know what this means. One said: "Staff have an in-credible feeling of dejection. There is a feeling of dictatorship at the paper. All the reporting staff are looking for new jobs."

Blackwood was born near the Mail offices, his children are in local schools and his wife is a ward manager at the town's hospital. His brutal and very public rem- oval will do new Labour no favours. Blackwood has many friends, and the circle is growing rapidly. Few are closer than his fellow fitness enthusiast Ray Mallon, the mayor of Middlesbrough, the ex-policeman who swept aside new Labour on the same night that H'Angus so riled Mandelson in Hartlepool. This pair can locate better than most the bodies buried in a region known for its political intrigue.

And what is the other job being offered to the angry, ousted (but hitherto little-known) editor? Why, it is that of national newspaper columnist. Well done, Peter. Who's a clever boy then?

John Booth was Hartlepool's Genuine Labour candidate in the 200l general election. He is currently writing Creating the Truth: tales of new Labour

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2003 issue of the New Statesman, America is no longer invincible

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.