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Crisp and brave

Among my guests last weekend as I read Lord Mandelson’s book was Ben, aged two and a half.

24 July 2010

12:00 AM

24 July 2010

12:00 AM

The Third Man Peter Mandelson

Harper Press, pp.601, 25

Among my guests last weekend as I read Lord Mandelson’s book was Ben, aged two and a half.

Among my guests last weekend as I read Lord Mandelson’s book was Ben, aged two and a half. Ben’s language skills are precocious, but he is passing through a stage, as some infants do, of preferring to speak in the third rather than the first person. Thus ‘Ben wants an ice cream’; or ‘Ben was a bit disappointed’. Once, even, he declared: ‘Ben’s quite tired’ (thoughtful pause), ‘he said.’ If the unexamined life is indeed not worth living, this child has taken the lesson to heart.

Peter Mandelson, who has called his memoir The Third Man, might have benefited from following Ben’s lead. He might have written in the third person. Had he penned, as it were, his biography rather than his autobiography, the logic of the grammar itself might have forced him to confront questions and admit to talents that the ‘I’ makes eccentric. ‘It is extremely unclear why I did that’ does not flow naturally. ‘It is extremely unclear why he did that’ does.

For this is my central difficulty with what is in many ways a revealing and important book by a more winning individual than I had expected to encounter. What on earth did he think he was up to? Where did he imagine it was going? What in the end was it all for? Questions unanswered because never posed.

The questions Mandelson does pose, I think, he answers in the main truthfully and in good faith. This is not a feline, slippery or waspish account. It’s remarkably straightforward, clearly if rather limply written. Nor is it (Mandelson’s Labour critics are wrong) self-serving. The central figure, the third man himself, emerges as frailer and more fallible — and, fascinatingly, more uncertain — than his reputation has suggested.

The second man, Gordon Brown, will never recover from this account, but why speak further of him, beyond perhaps adding that I now blame the Iraq war entirely on him, as by usurping his Prime Minister of any power to act at home, he left him with nothing to do but make war abroad. Brown and his reputation are now finished, and The Third Man has delivered the final and authoritative blow.

But it is the first man, Tony Blair, with some shreds of a reputation still remaining, who is the principal victim of the memoir. Readers may finish the book uncertain whether the author understands what he’s done to Blair, and whether he meant to do it. I have to conclude that he does and he did. ‘I do not know what conclusion readers will reach about Tony’ might just about wash. ‘He did not know what conclusion readers would reach about Tony’ most assuredly doesn’t.

Brown emerges as frankly unhinged. It is unkind to say more. But of Blair — of the man who on almost (it seems) every page, sighs impotently about the Caliban he has appointed and sustains, but does nothing about it — what are we to say? My jaw dropped when (p. 251) Blair recommends his desperately anxious Defence Chief, Charles Guthrie, to run along and himself attempt to talk Brown out of defence cuts, as he (Blair) is unable to budge him. Lord Guthrie was ‘shocked, then alarmed’. And that was only 1998! Is there a reader in Britain who will not wonder how Mandelson could have concluded that the New Labour leadership was going anywhere?

Critics are remarking that this is all old hat, and The Third Man tells us nothing we hadn’t heard already. Absolutely right. And if it were to be discovered that one of King Herod’s court had in fact kept a daily diary whose contents, now disclosed, confirmed, blow-by-blow, all those dreadful tales about the slaughter of the first-born, and the rest, fleshed out with remarkable detail and painting a sharper, more extraordinary picture even than we had imagined, then the critics — literalist believers among them, anyway — might say the same. But the rest of the world would gasp.

At this book I gasped. So it was all true! As bad as — indeed worse than — insiders said. The rumours were fact. The media caricature was the reality. The legend was real.

And Peter Mandelson kept faith. But with what? For here’s a paradox. Readers will search these 600 pages in vain for a single resonant, persuasive or even workable, enunciation of what the new Labour Party (to which he declares himself unshakeably loyal) stands for. Yet no reader will finish the account in any doubt that Mandelson does have a powerfully-grasped political philosophy. So what is it? Is this really all?

I was driven by the conviction that a modern, in-touch Labour Party would not just be more likely to win an election, but would lead to a fairer, more broadly-based, more socially engaged and economically successful government than the Tories.

No, it isn’t all. Elsewhere he makes very clear what he means by ‘in touch’. He means in touch with what the Tories were in touch with; and in touch with his — Peter’s — own beliefs. I’m afraid the stupid Left were right about Mandelson. He’s just a Conservative, a socially liberal one. Probably rightly he thought Tony Blair was too; but when it came to the crunch, Blair lacked courage. However falteringly, Mandelson did not.

The memoir deals briefly, but pretty fairly, with the inglorious (for both of us) episode in which I was said to have ‘outed’ him on Newsnight. As I kept expostulating at the time, and as Peter acknowledges here, he had been outed a decade previously, all over the News of the World. He as good as concedes that he overreacted to Newsnight, though it’s a bit rich to blame the BBC for overreacting: they were doubtless terrified of him. Defending his public silence about his private life on the grounds of a dislike of intrusive media coverage, he says it was no secret. That, I’m afraid, was what I was supposing, too. But Lord Mandelson has always had a problem with the distinction between ‘private’ and ‘secret’, taking a rather Giscardian view of the former. The problem arises again when he observes that he regarded his loan from Geoffrey Robertson as ‘private rather than secret’.

But let us bury these hatchets, which on my side I’ll do with the conclusion that this memoir seriously understates Peter’s two most luminous talents. It would no doubt have been tedious for him to expand in the first person — though in the third person I may — on his talent for that most neglected of political virtues, public administration. He was wonderfully crisp and commanding at the dispatch box, and (by many Whitehall accounts) a Rolls Royce of a minister.

And what never comes through in this account — though perhaps young Ben could accomplish the task — is the principal reason he rose as fast as he did, and showed the staying power he has:

Despite my private doubts, from the moment I arrived in Walworth Road [as Head of Communications at Labour’s HQ], I projected a sense of confidence. Partly this was bravado.

Mostly it was bravado, but bravado is another word for courage. For all that this memoir tells us, it never captures the man’s sheer guts. How can you, if you begin the sentence with ‘I’?

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