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Interview: Peter Mandelson

Just before being reappointed to the Cabinet Peter Mandelson, one of the key architects of New Labou

"I think if the party were to be taken over by those who want to reject new Labour, reject what the party has done over the past decade and all its achievements - we would be inviting a very long time in opposition."

Standing at the window of his hotel room in Manchester, Peter Mandelson is apprehensive as he talks about what has gone wrong with the Brown government and how best to repair the damage. Before this meeting, he repeatedly said he would not go on the record; that he is wary of interviews. But having spent two days at the party conference, and deciding that the need for a carefully planned revival of the party is more "urgent" than ever, Mandelson agrees to make his most wide-ranging intervention on British politics since leaving the country for the European Commission in 2004.

His message is clear. The government must not move to the left; rather, it must create a fresh and coherent strategy to "renew new Labour" and win the next election.

First, the obvious leadership question. Mandelson finally disappoints those rebel MPs who have been agitating for Gordon Brown's departure by supporting the Prime Minister - but with a strong qualification. "I do not think changing the face at the top is the panacea some imagine," he says. "But the whole of the leadership must remain true to the values and prin ciples that have delivered us success in the past ten years."

Since May, Mandelson has been talking again to his old rival Gordon Brown, and not just about the Doha round of trade talks that have dominated his role as Commissioner for External Trade in recent months. "It would be odd if we didn't discuss domestic issues," he says. "We have a shared interest in Labour's fortunes. [But] the last thing Gordon needs is another full-time adviser."

The relationship between Mandelson and Brown has always been more complicated, and emotional, than is widely thought. Each could not be more different in personality - one a witty, metropolitan sophisticate, the other an intellectual hardened by the machinations of Scottish politics - but their fortunes became interconnected through a mutual desire for Labour to become the natural party of government.

From 1985, when this former London Weekend Television producer arrived as director of campaigns and communications at Labour's then headquarters in Walworth Road, south London, Mandelson worked closely with both Brown and Tony Blair, the two MPs who - in that order - he believed would lead the party into government. After John Smith's sudden death in 1994, Mandelson agonised as he found himself caught between loyalty to Brown and the realisation that Blair would ultimately emerge as leader of the party.

Soon after, it would be reported and accepted as conventional wisdom that Mandelson had duplicitously betrayed Brown by moving early to support Blair; it became part of the myth of how Brown was robbed of the leadership. But in spite of this and their many arguments in the past, there remains a mutual respect. It has been said that Brown's hostility to Mandelson had less to do with Mandelson than with his own, unstable relationship with Blair. The reality is that, with Blair out of the way, relations have become easier.

"I don't think one has to be a brilliant psycho-analyst to see that there was quite a lot of transfer of anger on to Peter that couldn't be inflicted on Blair himself. That came from the Labour Party generally and also from Brown and the people around him," says the novelist Robert Harris, one of Mandelson's most loyal friends.

"We have had our ups and downs," Mandelson says of Brown. "But remember, we have known each other for over 20 years."

Asked if Brown's leadership is the disaster that, in private, some Labour MPs say it is, Mandelson disagrees. "I don't accept that judgement of him, and I really don't think this is simply a matter of personalities."

What of Brown's personality? What are his qualities? "The reason why Gordon's speech at conference was a success was that it opened more of a window on to Gordon Brown," Mandelson says later, speaking from China. "The public want to feel a connection, a personal one, with their prime ministers. They know he has a full head of policy ideas and experience. But they also want to know more about him. These are serious times. But that doesn't mean he has to be only about policy, and he showed another side of him."

His support is not unequivocal. "It's a matter of political choices. A choice of who we are, what we stand for and what we want to do for our country. Do we want to go back to some variation of Seventies/Eighties Labour politics? Why should our voters be interested in that? You are saying to people: Go ahead, vote for the Conservatives instead. David Cameron would just have to sit back and watch the votes come rolling in. Labour would no longer deserve to win."

Walking around the conference halls with Mandelson in Manchester, I was struck by how warmly so many cabinet ministers embraced him. And yet, also present were many of his old enemies, including Charlie Whelan, Brown's old spin doctor who is now political director for Unite, the UK's largest union. Whelan was busy briefing journalists at the conference, as well as speaking to ministers.

Mandelson warns Brown not to be swayed by such voices. "When I listen to some of the trade union leaders and others who are organising hard on the left of the party, demanding renationalisation and an end to new Labour, sneering at the so-called Blairites, I realise there are still those who prefer the comfort of opposition to the hard tasks of government.

"If anyone thinks that the party has a future by splitting the difference between the old left and new Labour, that we can take six of one and half a dozen of the other and rebuild the party around that, we will go downhill fast. Because the country has to have a real sense of what we are about, a clear definition, and there has to be a hard edge to the party in what we stand for and how we present ourselves to the electorate. Not nodding in this direction, then that direction, pleasing this group, reaching out to the other, without any clear, purposeful direction.

"The public will conclude we are more interested in shoring up our own ranks and maintaining the appearance of unity than governing with a real project. The new Labour way is harder because it requires both more imagination and more rigour. It also takes more courage to demand change than unity. I came away from conference having talked to many former colleagues and friends and I've never felt such a sense of urgency for Labour to think through how it's going to win the next election."

There is a sense that the government has been too passive for too long. "We have to have more imagination and better ideas . . . I don't feel resigned to defeat, I don't feel fatalistic. I can't bear these people who, looking over the precipice, are frozen into inaction.

"That's not what got us into government in the first place, that's not what has driven us forward these past ten years, and there's no reason why we should be paralysed by our prospects now."

Born in 1953, Mandelson grew up in Hampstead Garden Suburb, in north-west London, where Harold and Mary Wilson were neighbours and good friends of the family: Tony, Mandelson's father, an advertising manager for the Jewish Chronicle, his mother, Mary (Herbert Morrison's daughter), and his elder brother, Miles. The young Mandelson was active in the Young Socialists while at Hendon County Grammar. After a period as Labour represen tative for Stockwell on Lambeth Council, he joined an elite band of young producers at LWT working on Weekend World, presented by the former Labour MP Brian Walden. In 1985, he applied for the role of Lab our's communications and campaigns director. The successful candidate remembers entering the party's dreary office, with its barely functioning table and chair, and having to start, against the odds, the job of helping remake the party and presenting it to the outside world as changed.

Mandelson was always more than just a PR man; and when, with Tony Blair's help, he sought and won his own seat in Hartlepool in 1992, the then leader, Neil Kinnock, and his chief of staff, Charles Clarke, were angry that such a trusted consigliere should wish to strike out on his own. After Labour's landslide in 1997, Blair made Mandelson minister without portfolio, then moved him to the Department of Trade and Industry the following year. But that December, someone close to Brown leaked news that, in 1996, Mandelson had helped fund the purchase of a house in Notting Hill with a secret loan from his fellow Labour minister Geoffrey Robinson. Mandelson resigned and was forced to return to the back benches. But as early as the following autumn, Blair brought back his old ally as Northern Ireland secretary.

In January 2001, he was brought down again after it was alleged that he had intervened on behalf of Srichand Hinduja, a businessman and sponsor of the Millennium Dome who was seeking a British passport. Mandelson still protests his innocence in the affair - and with some justification, given that he was cleared by the sub sequent Hammond inquiry. At this point, the cabinet career of one whom even the fiercest of critics accept is a man of rare talent was prematurely ended.

Robert Harris thinks these incidents should not be allowed to overshadow Mandelson's qualities and achievements. "Peter has a very good strategic sense," he says. "Of all the politicians I've ever spoken to, I think he's the sharpest, the most analytical. Oddly enough, I think that probably his most important time was before Labour came to power and during the government's early days. It may be that, when one looks back on it, this was always going to be his biggest contribution."

Reflecting now on the period during which Labour was preparing for a return to power, Mandelson says: "Recovery has got to be fought for. I hate the fatalism that some seem to have about Labour's prospects. If you battled your way through the Eighties and early Nineties as I did, when the situation in the party was dire compared to what it is now, you realise that you have to fight back. You don't resign yourself to losing or to thinking your opponents have found some magic formula for success.

"But what we also learned in the Nineties is that to win, you have to have purpose and direction. You need a very clear proposition to put to the electorate, and you have to have a clear sense of what you want to use your power for. Inevitably, it's more difficult when you've been in office for as long as Labour has, but it doesn't mean it is impossible to do."

Despite this, he qualifies his support for the "campaign for a fourth term" launched by John Prescott and Alastair Campbell in the New Statesman a fortnight ago. At the Labour conference, Prescott - who once compared Mandelson to a crab - was energetically handing out "Go Fourth" stickers to delegates.

Without being prompted, Mandelson says: "Rather than talk about the fourth term as if we are owed it, and that all we need to do is shout loudly enough for it, you have to work out what your project is. It has to be an extension of what you've done to date, built on what you've done so far, but it has to be about the future, not the past. If the Labour Party can renew new Labour afresh, I believe it has a real chance of winning the next election. But it has to be worked for and earned, not just demanded."

What does he say to the rebel MPs, led by Charles Clarke, who called for a leadership election before conference? "There is an attempt to brand all critics of the government as Blairites in order to isolate them and present their cause as one half of a destructive civil war." In a direct rebuke of the formula used by Prescott, he adds: "They are not Blairites or Brownites or bitterites. They are people who want the party to be successful, to win again."

Does he accept the media assumption that the Conservative Party has changed and "modernised" under David Cameron? "They have managed to change their image rather quickly by shedding some of the dogma, but I don't think they have done the equivalent major changes and I don't think they have carried the party entirely with them. [But] it is no use just attacking the opposition. We need to be confident in our own message. Labour's renewal has to come from within, not from simply refining our anti-Tory strategy, as some seem to think. That's not the way to a fourth term. When you have been in office this long, your main challenge is to renew yourself. If we cannot do that we will lose."

At his most “Mandelsonian”, he remains a constant scourge of the left, critical of those who take the dark view that Labour has run out of ideas

Earlier in the summer, while on holiday in Corfu, Mandelson dined with the shadow chancellor George Osborne. "[It was] by chance, rather than by choice, with 20 other people," he explains. "But I did enjoy talking to him, because I haven't known him previously and I wanted to find out what he's made of." And what is he made of? "I decided that a chance encounter in a Greek taverna didn't equip me well enough to form a judgement."

Mandelson looks pained - almost haunted - as he describes the reversal of the opinion polls over the past year, and accepts that Labour's plight is more grave than at any time under Blair. "I think that Labour has been thrown by what's happened. A lot of people active in the party now haven't known a time when we're not ahead in the polls. It's only in the last year that we've experienced such a reverse in support. But polls are like share prices - what goes down can come up as long as there's a change in performance."

At his most "Mandelsonian" - some might say paranoid - he remains a constant scourge of the left, critical of those who take the dark view that Labour has run out of ideas and should seek "to renew itself in opposition".

"I think the people eager for Labour to renew in opposition are those who see the chance to overturn new Labour and revert to the vote-losing policies of the old left. They are the same people who talk about a core vote and how we should return to our heartlands. In other words, cease to be a broadly based party, north and south, young and old, across geographical and professional boundaries.

"Those who say that are simply inviting defeat at the next election. That is exactly what the left said as the Labour government came to a close at the end of the Seventies; indeed, listening to some in Manchester, I'm rather reminded of that time where the old left were feigning support for the government and the leadership, but in reality were hastening its end.

"They wanted to take over the party and lead it backwards into the nearest cul de sac. We all know where that led. We spent the next 18 years languishing in the wilderness."

Instead, he says, the non-partisan, all-encompassing nationwide appeal that contributed to Labour winning two landslide election victories must be rediscovered. "We have to look at the whole country as our constituency, in the way that we did in 1997. We didn't look at Labour voters and non-Labour voters, heartland voters and non-heartland voters in 1997 - we looked at the voters as a whole, we looked at the country as a whole, everyone a potential Labour voter. People who agreed with what we wanted to do for the country, who recognised that we had put our class instincts behind us, and who were ready to embrace a modern economy in a sensible and disciplined way."

The work Mandelson did as one of the three principal architects of new Labour wasn't "about heartlands or Labour people and non-Labour people - it was about everyone". So what does he think of the left's mobilisation and agitation for a change of direction under the banner of Compass and the unions? "If the Labour Party reverts to that sectional, class-based way, then we can say goodbye to power altogether."

Later, as he walks in the Manchester sunshine on a lovely late summer evening, Mandelson speaks for the first time about his future beyond his present job, a job that has made him more powerful than most in the cabinet. "I enjoy my job. I couldn't have asked for a better brief than world trade. But I don't know what I am going to do next year when my term runs out. I am not seeking a second term. It's odd, because on the occasions that I come to London now I feel like a bit of a tourist, and I don't like that."

In person, Mandelson has the presence of a man who has learned much from his travels. "I will always want to remain in the world, in an international role, whatever I do, because I've enjoyed going to so many countries, learning so much. But, equally, it would be nice to have my home base back again."

Some ministers - especially those close to David Miliband, whose speech he watched from the front row after being excitedly greeted by a party steward - talk of a return to government for Mandelson. To others, the idea is absurd. But every previous former EU commissioner has been appointed to the Lords, and it is common for ministers and shadow ministers to be appointed from the Upper House.

Does he want to return to front-line politics? Mandelson says he hasn't given it a "second's thought", but adds: "Well, I care a lot about British politics, and as I travel I realise that British politics are among the best, the cleanest and the most civilised in the world . . .

"I'll always be contributing to Labour in one form or another, but I don't know what I will do professionally. You can be active in politics without being in parliament, and obviously I don't see a return to the House of Commons."

In 1935 Mandelson's grandfather Herbert Morrison was returned to parliament for the second time - and ran unsuccessfully against Clement Attlee for the Labour leadership. Mandelson once said that his ultimate ambition was to become foreign secretary. That hope may now seem unrealistic. Yet, given his experience from the past few years, after his second, reluctant resignation from the cabinet, it would be unwise to rule out some future international role for a natural-born politician who has come back many times before.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Perils of power

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

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

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