There is a compelling black-and-white photograph from 1996 of Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown by the fine Magnum photographer Peter Marlow. Brown, his head slightly lowered, has his back to the camera, somehow reinforcing the sense of his volcanic presence in a wood-panelled room of the Institution of Civil Engineers, where the men are alone before some long-forgotten youth employment launch. Would the moment that First Secretary Mandelson tells Prime Minister Brown the game is up, if it were ever to happen, look something like this? In faultlessly pressed white shirt and cufflinks, jacketless, his pose courtierly, Mandelson is in profile. Almost, but not quite, apprehensive, he has the facial expression of a man waiting patiently for an answer that he knows, with just the faintest trace of sympathy, the other does not want to give. As in a classic narrative painting, the tension is palpable.
As well it might have been. For Marlow has frozen an instant in the most pivotal few months of what by then already seemed an irretrievably dysfunctional relationship. Only four months earlier, Tony Blair had written to remind Mandelson that “we are not players in some Greek tragedy” and lamented that “the most brilliant political minds of their generation” are “more desirous of victory over each other than making it work”. This followed a letter of “resignation” from Mandelson after a particularly poisonous row. Mandelson quoted the Brown ally Michael Wills as saying that “Gordon ‘wants to kill me before I destroy him’”.
Yet by the time the picture is taken, Mandelson, eager for a fashionable and expensive home in Notting Hill, has been house-hunting under the genial tutelage of Geoffrey Robinson, the millionaire MP, close friend of Brown and then owner of the New Statesman. Weeks later the two men would finalise the £373,000 loan from Robinson that, in the single most self-destructive act of his career, Mandelson would keep secret as he began his rise through government under the patronage of Tony Blair.
Until, that is, details of the loan were leaked to the press in December 1998 by other close allies of Brown, causing Mandelson’s first resignation from the cabinet. Brown was not responsible for the leak, but it was the climax of what Blair had called in his letter a “titanic but ultimately irrelevant personality feud”. Yet it was a feud that no one, least of all the then British prime minister, knew how to stop.
A decade later, Brown and Mandelson are all but joined at the hip. The clutch of Merrie England titles that Mandelson has acquired in his new role reflects his centrality in the government. There was speculation at the time of the reshuffle that Mandelson had sought to be foreign secretary – certainly a job he has long wanted.
In fact, it was never a possibility. He is too pivotal to be allowed long absences from the UK. He now spends much of his time in Downing Street – including, by all counts, many evenings that end with his urging the Prime Minister to go to bed. He even coexists, albeit warily, with Ed Balls, easily Brown’s closest ministerial confidant hitherto. Today, joined in their service to the Prime Minister, they have a “non-aggression” pact in which, while Balls continues bilateral telephone contact with Brown, the two lieutenants do not contradict each other at meetings and do not brief against other. Finally, Mandelson is credited, even by those who wished it had not happened, with “saving” the Prime Minister during the period of maximum turbulence around the Euro elections this month.
How did all this happen? How did Mandelson’s sworn enemy come first to bring him back into government and then to locate him as primus inter pares among his ministers? And how will it end? After all, it was not as if the enmity did not survive in-tact well into Mandelson’s appointment as European trade commissioner in 2004. Even while Brown was still chancellor, Mandelson would regularly, if only semi-openly, complain to British correspondents in Brussels about the Treasury’s refusal to consult with him.
After Brown became Prime Minister relations with Mandelson became, if anything, worse. The Brussels press corps were left with the impression that the commissioner thought Brown might not be up to taking on what he indicated was the impressive challenge being mounted by David Cameron. Then, in March 2007, at a time when the widely known freeze in relations between the commissioner and his home-country government was already undermining his authority in Brussels, Mandelson chose to give a chilly radio interview in which he announced that he had decided to deny Brown the pleasure of sacking him by not seeking a second term. It was a new low point.
The bare facts of the subsequent and gradual rapprochement during the first half of 2008 are well documented: the prime ministerial visit to Brussels and the long talk between the two men about anything but trade. The London dinner given by Stewart Wood, the only No 10 official then permitted contact with Mandelson, to which were invited both Mandelson and Baroness Shriti Vadera, a tough-minded and long-standing ally of Brown’s, to whom Mandelson greatly warmed. The lunch, also in London, Mandelson had with the veteran Downing Street (and former Treasury) official Jeremy Heywood, before which the Prime Minister asked Heywood if he could come, too. Heywood politely refused, but the lunch was followed by another long tête-à-tête between Brown and Mandelson, this time in Downing Street.
Even before this, however, Brown followed up on his Brussels trip – after a short interval – by starting to telephone Mandelson, to send him speech drafts and policy proposals. In short, to consult him. By all accounts the gradually intensifying appeal was notably personal, a call for help by a man who was discovering that being prime minister was a good deal more complicated than being chancellor. But Mandelson, his friends are convinced, had no notion at this stage that he might return to government.
It is easy to describe the invitation to Mandelson to rejoin the cabinet in October last year (and the thaw that preceded it) in merely political terms. For Brown, the appointment added much-needed lustre to an otherwise routine reshuffle. More importantly, and even if the prospects of a challenge from David Miliband had faded, it served to neutralise what he saw as a still potent Blairite threat to his premiership. From Mandelson’s point of view it was, in Blair’s now famous phrase when a stunned Mandelson consulted him about the offer, a “no-brainer”.
Despite having arguably the best job in the European Commission – given that trade, unlike many of the other portfolios, is actually in the commission’s competence – he missed the action in London; he was in danger of becoming a “lame duck” because of his decision not to seek a second term and because of the wide perception, even if it was becoming much less accurate, that he had been frozen out by London. And there was little sign of a successful conclusion to the world trade round, which might have crowned his term in Brussels. (Blair’s advice, similarly solicited by Alastair Campbell, whom Brown also offered more or less any job he wanted, was more equivocal. Campbell refused the job offer; he had built another life, which he enjoyed.)
Yet politics alone cannot explain the subsequent and growing intimacy between the two men, or the relative ease with which they exorcised the demons of the previous 13 years. The psychological roots almost certainly lie further still in their past.
It is easy to forget now the cohesiveness of this triangle, before John Smith’s death in 1994, that had gradually formed since the “discovery” of Mandelson as Labour’s communications director, and the subsequent promotion of the backbenchers Brown and Blair as early as the run-up to the 1987 election. Alex Stevenson, working as a young researcher for Mandelson, recalled that, during 1993, when the group felt relatively isolated as “modernisers”, there were “incessant” telephone calls from Blair and Brown, but that those from Brown were even more frequent. The three men’s closeness – with a largely unspoken understanding that Brown was the leading figure of the three – can scarcely be exaggerated. Probably no one but Mandelson and Brown remembers that it was the latter who painstakingly advised the former on his crucial speech to the selection conference that chose him as parliamentary candidate for Hartlepool in 1989 – and actually wrote the peroration of it.
The best analogy to describe the relationship is that of two brothers who quarrel bitterly over a legacy – in this case the leadership of the Labour Party and the premiership – but are finally reconciled, resuming their old warmth. This is the view of two former officials who worked in Downing Street during the worst of the Mandelson-Brown schism and experienced it first-hand. One says now, “I think the reason they were so angry with each other was that they had been so close.” The other puts it even more forcefully: “It’s impossible to hate someone that much unless you also love them.”
Even during the worst of the feud, the bond was never quite broken. When Mandelson’s mother, Mary, the daughter of Herbert Morrison and the most formative political influence of his life, died in 2006, during yet another peak of Brown-Mandelson hostilities, Brown telephoned Mandelson in Brussels to express his condolences. The conversation was awkward but the call was memorable enough for Mandelson to report it to his closest friends.
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Anatomy of a feud
1994 After the death of the Labour leader John Smith in 1994, Peter Mandelson sidelines his old friend Gordon Brown and backs the more popular Tony Blair for the leadership. “We’ve been betrayed,” Brown tells one ally. “I love you, but I can destroy you,” Mandelson warns Brown.
1995 Blair’s attempts at détente fail when he confronts Brown. “Peter? He’s been going around telling everyone that I’m gay. And I’m not gay,” Brown fumes.
1996 Displaying his often unacknowledged sense of humour, Brown acidly remarks to a Tribune rally: “Peter asked me for 10p to phone a friend the other day. I said: ‘Here, take 20p and ring them all.’ When people ask me if I have a close relationship with Mandelson, I answer: ‘How would I know? I haven’t spoken to him for 18 months.’”
1998 Mandelson is forced to resign from the cabinet for the first time after the Guardian reports that he received a secret loan of £373,000 from his ministerial colleague Geoffrey Robinson. Mandelson blames Brown’s pugnacious spin doctor Charlie Whelan for the leak.
2001 Accused of unreasonably aiding the Hinduja brothers in their quest for British citizenship, Mandelson resigns as Northern Ireland secretary and loses his status as joint election co-ordinator with Brown. Mandelson is subsequently exonerated by the Hammond inquiry.
2007 Asked whether he fears being replaced as the UK’s European commissioner when Brown becomes prime minister, Mandelson replies: “I don’t know whether this is going to come as a disappointment to him, but he can’t actually fire me. So like it or not, I’m afraid he will have to accept me as commissioner until November 2009.”
2008 On 3 October, Mandelson makes an extraordinary return to the cabinet as business secretary. Ten days later he becomes Baron Mandelson of Foy and takes his seat in the House of Lords.
2008 Mandelson is said to have “dripped pure poison” about Gordon Brown to George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, just weeks before his return to government. Mandelson denounces the leaking of the conversation as “straight out of a dirty-tricks department”.
2009 Brown hands Mandelson overall control of a new superdepartment, with a portfolio including business regulation, universities and space travel. Awarded the Soviet-style title of First Secretary of State, Mandelson cements his position as de facto deputy prime minister.
More remarkably still, at the time of his first resignation eight years earlier, Mandelson, fighting in vain for his political life after being exposed by some of Brown’s closest henchmen, turned to the then chancellor himself for counsel. He discovered that Brown was horrified that the saga was leading to Mandelson’s inevitable departure from government.
In Mandelson’s second resignation, Brown played no part. Indeed, Mandelson had more cause to blame Blair than Brown. What the resignation did, however, was expose the falsity of the frequent claim that Brown’s problem had been with Mandelson and not with Blair. Mandelson’s removal did nothing to reduce the relentless pressure Brown applied on Blair, which, together with the legacy of the Iraq War, culminated in Blair’s departure in 2007.
Nevertheless, the split between Mandelson and Brown was deeply personal and precisely fratricidal. Brown’s lieutenants blamed Mandelson for creating the conditions in which Blair emerged in the polls as the clear front-runner for the Labour leadership in 1994. In fact, he had no such magical powers, as Brown himself may deep down have realised. Which is why Mandelson judged the break came several months later in an argument over party appointments. The issue over which Mandelson sided with Blair against Brown was relatively trivial, but showed the depth of Mandelson’s new fealty to Blair.
All this, especially the intensity of feeling between Brown and Mandelson, calls into question the conventional wisdom that Mandelson may ultimately move against Brown in October, as he did not move against him a fortnight ago. In Mandelson’s case, predictions are a fool’s game, and it could yet happen. Certainly he has not been in the habit of ending up on the losing side in the past, including in 1994, or when, after a brief hesitation, he decided not to join the SDP after its formation in 1981.
The idea of being “the last man standing” in the cabinet, as a deeply uneasy Ken Baker was at the time of Margaret Thatcher’s fall in 1990, is hardly appealing. But most of those close to Mandelson – including those who might ideally prefer it otherwise – appear to think it likelier that he intends to stick with Brown to the end, and to use, on the Prime Minister’s behalf, all the political skills he has to keep him in place.
There are several political reasons for this. The unrest in the parliamentary party is dire, though perhaps not much more dire than it was for Blair in the wake of the Iraq War. But there is no clear, obvious successor to the Prime Minister, or at least no clear agreement, not even among the “Blairites” (to the extent that such a term has meaning now that Mandelson has thrown in his lot with the Prime Minister), about the ideal successor. If Brown disappeared, Mandelson would probably prefer David Miliband over Alan Johnson. But there is a lack of confidence – even among those, other than Mandelson, closest to Blair in the past – about whether either Miliband or Johnson would do better than Brown. At least the Prime Minister has the policies and track record needed at a time of profound economic crisis. And while Brown’s supporters may have wilfully exaggerated the inevitability of a leadership contest, it is by no means clear, given the febrile state of the party and the beginnings of the jockeying to determine a post-election scenario, that one could be avoided, possibly with disastrous results so close to a general election.
This is not to say that, if an irresistible revolt materialises, it would not fall to Mandelson, as it did in 1994, to tell Brown how conditions were. Or, if Brown decided to go, to ensure that he withdrew with honour. But it looks much less likely than assumed that Mandelson would be prepared to wield the knife. And the personal reasons for this are at least as potent as the political ones: a commitment not to desert Brown twice and, at least as important, the resulting damage to his reputation if he did.
The former Labour foreign secretary and SDP founder Lord Owen is said to have reinforced this point in a recent conversation with Mandelson, as have others. Of all the twists in this melodrama of internecine strife that has so hobbled the Labour government over more than a decade, the strangest of all would be if it fell to Peter Mandelson to disprove Lloyd George’s maxim that there is no friendship at the top.
Donald Macintyre is the author of “Mandelson and the Making of New Labour” (HarperCollins)