Up and Down the Greasy Pole
Anyone who wants to know what really happened between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and wishes to understand the narcissistic psychosis that is at the centre of modern democratic politics should read this fascinating, sometimes horrifying, but rarely dull book. Peter Mandelson was one of the greatest political geniuses of recent British history and he has written an extremely candid book about his twenty-five years at the heart of the New Labour project, from the time he first met Gordon Brown and Tony Blair up to the Party’s defeat in last year’s General Election.
The Third Man
Harper Press £8.99
This book will annoy a good many of the people featured in it, and it will enrage most of the others. But that is not to say that Mandelson is unfair. He always gives credit where he thinks it due, even to David Cameron and Nick Clegg. But Gordon Brown, whom he worked with right to the last day on which a New Labour Prime Minister sat in 10 Downing Street, and for whom he professes almost unbounded admiration as a political figure, comes across as a vicious, unscrupulous, prejudiced, bullying, insensitive, hypersensitive, driven, sulky, inflexible, deceitful, arrogant, devious, back-stabbing plotter with tunnel vision and a bolt-on smile, who was so out of touch with presentation issues that he could never tie his tie so that the knot was correctly aligned. Even if Peter—it’s all first names in this book—personally centred the errant knot, it would be out of alignment by the time Gordon got in front of Jeremy on Newsnight, Andrew on the BBC Sunday Morning show or John or James on the Today programme.
Gordon’s problem was that he was an atavistic class-warrior to the very end, even when totally exhausted by the effort of cobbling together a coalition with the LibDem after Labour had lost the election.
“He was starting to feel it looked bad for him to be holed up in Downing Street over the weekend,” Mandelson writes, “and that it would be better for him to take his family to Scotland and return to London on Sunday morning [to continue negotiating]. I said that sounded like an excellent idea, but added, ‘Why don’t you go to Chequers? It’s nearer.’ Gordon seemed about to jump out of his chair at the mere mention of Chequers. ‘God, no,’ he said. ‘It’s a country house!’”
On that fateful Sunday, one of the few flashes of wit in this weirdly po-faced book comes from Tony. Peter had been texting him that morning about the near impossibility of Gordon’s doing a deal with Nick, of the LIbDems, and reporting on soundings he, Peter, had taken about the negotiations with senior Labour figures like Sue, Harriet, Ed, David, Ed and Alistair. “When I texted Tony to say that I was now free to talk [on the phone], and that ‘Gordon is going to church,’ Tony texted back, ‘He’ll find that a tougher negotiation.’”
The book is full of fascinating, soapopera- like detail about the intimate contours of a life spent fighting to get to what Benjamin Disraeli called “the top of the greasy pole”. Marshall McLuhan famously said that in the global village the medium is the message. Mandelson, with his unbelievably acute feel for what was required to get Tony and Gordon up that pole, paints a picture of New Labour as being more medium than message. The book is mainly about personalities, which is why it is so unputdownable.
The full story is given of Mandelson’s controversial stay aboard Oleg Deripaska’s yacht. He was European Trade Commissioner at the time and the EU duties on aluminium, Deripaska’s major interest, were being reduced. Mandelson claims that was purely co-incidental, since he was only using Deripaska’s boat as a crash pad while on Corfu to attend Elizabeth Murdoch’s fortieth birthday party. It was being held at the home of Jacob and Serena Rothschild, and there was not enough room in the house for all the guests.
“Despite later media suggestion that I had gone to Corfu to join Oleg for a holiday on his yacht,” Mandelson writes, “I hardly saw him, except for an amusing episode in which, during an early-morning wander around his boat, I stumbled across a yoga session he and his wife were taking, and I happily joined in under the instruction of his teacher.”
Later, he meets “the charming and intelligent pro-market” German Gref, who was leading the Russian team negotiating entry to the World Trade Organisation. “We shared many hours over long Russian dinners, even resorting to a Russian banya on one occasion with our respective teams in an effort to find agreement. But whithout his President’s support, Gref could not compromise enough and Vladimir Putin never felt that Russia was receiving a fair enough deal for him to accept.”
Peter Mandelson was known in the British press as The Prince of Darkness because of his skill at the black arts of political message manipulation. I know many people who are reduced to spluttering rage when his name is mentioned. But it is a testament to his skills as a communicator that the reader ends up agreeing with Matthew Parris’s comment about this book. Parris was no friend of Mandelson since it was he who, despite being an openly gay Tory MP, “outed” Mandelson on BBC television in 1998. So it is particularly relevant that Parris said this is “a revealing and important book by a more winning individual that I had expected to encounter.”