At the Labour Party spring conference, I spent most of my time talking to Labour campaign strategists. There was considerable relief that Peter Mandelson would not be allowed into Millbank to spread his poison, but concern that he would still be spinning like a top. It was thought that he could cause more problems for Labour than could the Tories and, in particular, that he was interested only, as one strategist put it, “in making sure that the campaign run by Gordon Brown is a flop”. How prophetic were these words?
Well, with the campaign under way, Mandelson and his media muppets have been hard at work, even if Brown and his team found the first weekend’s “Bring back Mandy” headlines downright laughable. They fooled no one. Indeed, the Chancellor was so sure Mandelson, like the Tories, had peaked too soon that he cracked not one but two jokes at the Monday morning press conferences.
Astute followers of Mandelson’s media operations will have noticed that he was active from the day Blair returned to school to announce the election date. One of Mandy’s muckers wrote: “Any day now, Tony Blair will be asked whether he intends to stick it out as Prime Minister for a full term.” In fact, Blair had already been asked that very question in an embargoed interview with the London Evening Standard, but when your only contact in new Labour is Mandelson, that’s the sort of duff information you receive. Blair had no option but to say that he intended to carry on for a full term, resulting in inevitable headlines of “Blair: No deal for Brown”.
Such stories encourage Mandelson: he will do anything to prevent Brown becoming the next Labour leader, even at the expense of damaging the party’s electoral prospects. I can confirm that the first mention of a deal did not come from anyone close to Brown. Stories on a pact, mostly written by those who know nothing of the truth, have caused much amusement among the Chancellor’s friends. Yet the problem with this story – and its appeal to hacks – is that only two people know if there was ever such an agreement, and Blair and Brown are hardly likely to spill the beans. Which means it is open season for speculation.
I was with Brown when he set off for Granita to tell Blair that he would not stand against him as leader, and I was there when he returned for steak and chips (those trendy Islington eateries don’t serve much food). I can confirm that he said nothing that night about any future deal on the leadership, but that does not mean there wasn’t one. My guess is that Blair did tell Brown that he would stand down as leader in a second parliament. But if I were Brown, given Blair’s track record, I would not have believed him.