Matthew Dancona

The price of Mandelson’s support

The price of Mandelson's support
Text settings

The cover piece in the new issue of the magazine is by my former opposite number at the New Statesman, John Kampfner, and is a defining addition to our knowledge of the crucial 48 hours in which Gordon Brown’s fate was decided earlier this month. As the polls for the local and European elections closed at 10pm on Thursday June 4, James Purnell announced that he was resigning from the Cabinet. David Miliband has since revealed in a Guardian interview that he considered quitting, too, but that he had “made my decision [not to] on Thursday” - and that Peter Mandelson was critical to that decision. "I'm not going to go into [our conversation],” Miliband said, “but we didn't sort of talk about the weather."

In the days that followed, as Brown’s reshuffle was completed (just), it became clear that Mandelson had effectively saved Brown’s premiership: an outcome that Mandelson himself admitted to the Telegraph on June 13 was "almost unimaginable rather than just simply ironic". The question is: why? We know that his department was souped up and that he was given the fancy new title of First Secretary of State, making him – in all but name – the Deputy Prime Minister.

What John reveals, however, is that the deal brokered by Mandelson in those make-or-break hours was very specific:

Not known until now is one vital part of their negotiation. Mandelson – on Blair’s behalf – set down specific conditions for the Iraq war inquiry. The deal, I am told, was explicit. Not only would the hearings be fully in private, but that the committee would, as with Hutton, be manageable. Brown was instructed to ensure that the members of the inquiry would, in the words of one official “not stir the horses”. Brown readily acquiesced. He was not in a position to do anything else. It was a done deal, even before James Purnell sent alarm bells through Downing Street with his resignation on the night of June 4.

Which in turn begs a further question. Why should confidentiality in the Iraq hearings be so important to Mandelson? Again, John supplies the answer:

Mandelson’s involvement in this affair is more complicated. He has personally less to hide than Blair, Campbell and the others who were intimately engaged in the war planning. His motivation hinges around preserving the Blair Brand that he was instrumental in creating. He agreed a year ago to join Brown’s cabinet in order to ensure that the Brand was not sullied. He agreed to prop up the prime minister earlier this month in order to ensure that the Brand was not completely destroyed.

A mystery solved, then – and another shameful chapter in the New Labour saga written. The terms of the Chilcot Inquiry – already unravelling – were initially traded in return for loyalty: no more or less. Gordon revealed that more or less anything was for sale in those fateful hours; Peter revealed where his deepest loyalty still lies. And, to the huge relief of the Conservatives and dismay of many in the Labour ranks, the Brown premiership was salvaged.

A must-read by an impeccable journalist.