From the Archives: An In Conversation Interview with Peter Mandelson
31 Mar 2018 at 15:41
Back in November 2010 I interviewed Peter Mandelson. He was in soul bearing mood. I thought you might enjoy it all over again. It took place not long after hi autogiograhy had been published, and only a couple of months after Ed Miliband’s election as Labour leader. Reading the interview back, it hasn’t really dated very much.
ID: What was your experience of writing your book The Third Man?
PM: The book has been in the process of being written and produced over many years. I wasn’t writing it during the election campaign at all. It had two false starts when I embarked on it but something happened to divert me, either going to Brussels or back to government here. The construction of it took place over many years and I worked on it on long intercontinental flights. I had somebody go through 36 box files of papers. I worked out what I wanted to say and then the real intensive writing and production of it came after the election. I went off and hid with two of my closest advisers and two people from HarperCollins who were absolutely indispensible. It’s not something I could go through again in a hurry.
Why the rush with publishing the book? To beat Tony Blair?
I wanted to move on in my life. I did not want to have such a book come out at the end of this year or beginning of next, when the Labour Party wants to move on. But these things have to capture a moment and I felt the moment was then, as did the publishers. There were a whole series of difficult judgement calls about what to include. I decided that I couldn’t tell the real story unless I told, broadly speaking, the whole story. I couldn’t leave certain events or exchanges or episodes out because I wouldn’t be able to explain what happened later. So, having approached it in the first place in a rather sort of cautious, judicious, discreet way, I found that I had to put in more than originally intended because that was the only way to tell the story and to have it make sense for people – but not in a nasty way. I think that people reading it will feel it’s balanced, it’s rounded. It is honest about people, but it’s not nasty about people and the only thing that I regretted about some of the newspaper coverage of it, was that the book was presented as me settling scores or getting my own back on people, and that was simply not how I felt, not how I wrote it. But I guess that’s the only way in which newspapers know how to write stories about such books.
I said in a review: “He’s painfully honest about his relationship with Gordon Brown and completely up front about his political and personal weaknesses – almost completely. Yet in the chapters on his return to government you sense that he would like to say more, but he doesn’t want to hurt his old political friend (and foe) anymore than he has to.”
That is absolutely right. There was an editor who will remain nameless who said: “You’ve got to be more explicit here. You’ve got to lay it out more fully. You’ve got to be tougher here.” And I replied: “I will be tough in my own way.” People will know what I’m saying without me laying into an individual. Even now, with the documentary [Mandelson: The Real PM?] some of the newspaper reporting is of me being nasty or catty or bitchy about Gordon. If you look at how I talk about Gordon it’s with affection. When I talk about him being a combination of a snowplough and a combine harvester, that’s a compliment. I mean Gordon had, as I described in the book, a certain force majeure. A determination not to allow anything or anyone to stand in his way when he was doing what he thought was right. Now that’s a vital ingredient that I believe a prime minister needs. In some respects, I wish Tony’d had more of the force majeure. Similarly, I wished Gordon had had a little bit more of Tony’s sort of feline charm. If you had Gordon’s intellect, his grasp of the big picture, that sort of forcefulness that a prime minster needs, a determination not to let anything get in his way, plus Tony’s charm and tact, communication skills, ability to pull together a team and his leadership, you would have the perfect prime minister.
There was a growing frustration, particularly in the run-up to 1997, that you were always operating in the shadows.
It was convenient for Tony but damaging for me. But you can only understand me, and what happened to me, by realising how difficult a role it was. Tony was very conflicted on this. On the one hand, he regarded me as a good minister – somebody who could take on a portfolio and deliver. On the other hand, he was affected by people whispering in his ear, and saying, ‘Peter’s too controversial’, or ‘Peter attracts too much media attention’, or ‘Peter’s too manipulative’, or ‘Peter’s a problem between you and Gordon’. He had a lot of that going on in his own circle. None of it designed to help me. I had to cope with that, while at the same time facing Gordon’s hostility from outside the Blair circle.
Every political leader, particularly the prime minister, has to have someone in your role who they can trust 100 per cent. Tony Blair could have said ‘every prime minister needs a Peter’.
Yes, but I was completely un-self-interested and that’s what some people didn’t realise at the time. I was working for the success of Tony Blair because I believed we’d only be elected as New Labour and that we had to govern as New Labour as well. It was the party’s success that mattered to me more than my personal ambition. If I had put myself first I would have done things quite differently. Quite differently.
What would you have done differently?
Not been so much at the cutting edge of change in the Labour Party. I would have been less outspoken, less forceful. I would have spent much more time in the Parliamentary Labour Party, in the tearoom, in the smoking room, making friends, agreeing with everyone, rather than contesting a lot of their views. You know, the problem is, as I explain candidly in the book, that I not only have very strong views about what the Labour Party had to become and change into to be elected, I was forceful in expressing those views. I didn’t really take hostages when people were trying to oppose or derail us. Now, that is not the recipe for a successful political career. Politics requires you to be a bit more amenable, a bit more accommodating, nice to everyone’s face, whatever you say behind their back, just altogether more oleaginous. And I didn’t do oleaginous.
When you came back in 2008 we saw a different Peter Mandelson from the one we’d seen before.
My colleagues did, very importantly. I came back as a sort of elder statesman – somebody who had gained considerable experience and status as a European commissioner. I returned as a fireman, as a safe pair of hands to help the government and the party in what was a crisis. I want to continue as a trusted and respected grandee or great uncle. What’s happened since the election is that we’ve all made up now. I felt hurt, I felt denigrated by some of Ed Miliband’s remarks. Talking about me in terms of ‘dignity in retirement’, I felt as if I was being unfairly treated and packed off rather prematurely to an old folk’s home. I also thought to define himself against New Labour, as opposed to being a development of New Labour, was electorally unwise. But again, we’ve all moved on. What I’ve got to do now is remain a candid friend but also constructive and always loyal. I was always loyal. I started at the beginning of my career, my full-time career in politics, as very loyal to Neil Kinnock, even though I didn’t agree with everything he was saying and doing. Nonetheless I thought he was tremendously courageous and bold in the leadership he gave to the party. I ended up equally as loyal to Gordon Brown who I didn’t agree with entirely either and I will be loyal to Ed Miliband because that’s how I am. I don’t want to become a sort of irritant or a backseat driver. I want to continue as I began when I returned in 2008.
Ed Miliband, during his leadership campaign, was playing to the people who were voting for him.
He has a very strong character and personality, as his brother discovered. He has strong personal qualities and something that people don’t realise is that when I came back in 2008, the colleague with whom I spent most time in the cabinet was Ed Miliband – partly because he was a neighbour in North London and partly because he went out of his way to befriend me. He really wanted to bury the hatchet and to put to rest all that he did for Gordon against Tony and among the Brownites against the Blairites.
People tend to forget him in that. Everyone thinks it was all Ed Balls.
He played his part, but he also wanted to put it behind him, and by befriending me and by spending so much time with me, he succeeded in that. I didn’t realise he had such strong leadership ambition. For me, the sort of default candidate and next leader was David. To be honest, I didn’t really think that seriously about Ed as a would-be leader. And as I said I spent much more time with Ed, and Ed was going out of his way to be more friendly towards me. But that again shows some of Ed’s cleverness.
Or deviousness. But it’s interesting that you didn’t identify him as a leader. Do you think he actually has what it takes to be a leader?
The fact that he came forward and challenged his brother, and conducted such a strong campaign, shows that he does have what is needed in politics to be the number one person. The one piece of advice I gave at the beginning of the leadership contest, was that he shouldn’t say anything to win the vote of the party that might make it subsequently more difficult to win the votes of the country.
But he ignored that advice didn’t he?
He ignored that advice but he’s made up for it since.
You’re one of the few people in politics who is listened to. Everything you say, people are interested in. You have an ability to get media coverage when you don’t need to.
That’s why I have to use my interventions sparingly and judiciously. I want to offer counsel to the new generation of Labour leaders and activists. I want to pass on my experience and my wisdom – not to interfere, not to try to rock the boat or drive the car from the backseat. Having come back as a safe pair of hands, I want to continue as such. It won’t stop me being candid in how I engage in Labour Party debates. But when you’re in a position like mine you have to weigh your words. I want to be trusted and respected for what I am and what I say, not regarded as somebody who just can’t bear to move on.
Trusted and respected by whom? Labour colleagues or the political classes generally?
By the new generation of Labour leaders and activists. I’m not going to say things I don’t agree with. When I was being interviewed recently, somebody asked me if I agreed with David Cameron’s big society idea. I said look back to the Progress lecture that I delivered in September 2009 and you will see the argument I made then that we have to maintain the quality and performance of our public services within new spending constraints. Their productivity, efficiency, accountability and tailoring them to the needs of individuals had to be achieved not by simply spending more money but by reforming them. The last thing I said was that you will find many of the ways in which we seek to change public services coming from within the communities, from the people who depend on these public services. That requires, I said in September 2009, a new path between those who deliver public services and those who use them, and depend on them. I said that long before David Cameron came up with his big society concept. It was reported in one newspaper as “Peter Mandelson praises David Cameron” but that’s politics. That’s creating a story. I can live with that. It is better than being ignored altogether.
Have you decided what you’re going to do now?
I’m not quite sure, but among other things I have to earn a living. I don’t have an income anymore.
I’ve always imagined that you might well become chairman of some big company, but would that excite you as much as politics does?
In the documentary you can see the sort of pressure I was operating under in the last two years as a minister in my department or the industrial policies and the interventions that I was trying to make – the time I spent in No 10. I was trying to support Gordon and help to manage different aspects of our communications and then our election campaign itself. I hear myself saying in that documentary: “How will I ever live without that pressure?”
Is it a constant adrenaline rush?
I’m not sure that rush is the word. It’s more like an ever-flowing river. And I will find [not having that] difficult.
Have you found it difficult in the last six months?
I know I should say to you that I’ve adjusted, I’ve moved on, I’m happy, I’m looking to the future with confidence. But the truth is that I feel a sense of bereavement for our government. Personally, I feel like a rather displaced individual and I’m not coping perfectly. But my word, I would have been in a much, much worse position if I hadn’t written a book and had that to talk about and do events about. It is a bit of therapy, but I also thought it was an interesting story and a historical account that needed to be given. I not only had a ringside seat but I was in the ring for a lot of the time. If you’re going to write the sort of book I’ve published without being vain about it, politics and how we’ve seen how we can understand the past and see the future, would have been the poorer.
I don’t know if you’ve ever read a book by Richard Nixon called In The Arena? It explains how you have to be in the arena to achieve anything. You can’t just stand on the sidelines and commentate. But can you get that back?
You have to be a Member of Parliament, in the House of Commons rather than the Lords. That is the essential platform and qualification for anyone who wants to be influential in British politics.
Gordon Brown did bring some people in from outside Parliament, but it didn’t really work, did it?
It certainly did work.
It did in Ali Darzi’s case but the others didn’t last very long.
Absolutely wrong, I totally disagree with that. It worked in Darzi’s case, Alan West’s case, Mark Malloch Brown … Mark had bigger potential and could have been used more.
They all buggered off after a year.
In my department both Shriti Vadera and Mervyn Davies made really important policy contributions.
I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in meetings with you and Shriti…
We got on well.
Really? She has a certain reputation.
She certainly does. It is well deserved. I respected her and she respected me.
Have you ruled out a fourth comeback?
I tend not to rule out anything in politics, given my roller-coaster career. Would you predict anything? I don’t think so. But I’m not going to sit by the telephone. I’m not going to hang around in expectation or with some sort of entitlement. I will find other things to do in my life – things that I enjoy, find stimulating or important, but also enable me to earn a living. If you were to ask me though, whether fundamentally I’d rather be in public service or the private sector … I’m a public service man. I was brought up in that way and that set of values and motives will never leave me.
If there was a vacancy, would you be interested in the job of EU High Representative?
I wanted to do the job. I couldn’t because I was a member of the government who had been called back. To be called back and then to leave a year early would have been impossible. I’m honest about what I say about it in my book. In the circumstances, with David Miliband not taking it, we would have been better to have an economic portfolio on the Commission. But I don’t expect it to become vacant so it’s a hypothetical question which is left hanging in the air.
Let’s talk about the election. There was a time when a lot of people in the Conservatives feared that you might have pulled it off.
We didn’t nearly pull it off. We got the worst result in electoral share.
There was a time at the beginning of the year when it looked as if it could be possible. The Tories were really in the doldrums. The polls were tightening, and a lot of us thought it could happen.
First of all, the Tories were never in “the doldrums”. Secondly, they were making the mistakes that arrogant people often make in politics. They just thought they had to sit tight and allow their opponents to lose the election. When the spotlight fell on them, people found them wanting. There wasn’t enough there. There wasn’t enough substance. There wasn’t enough policy, too few ideas. Also people felt that, for all his brave words, David Cameron had not actually changed, let alone transformed the Conservative Party, and they didn’t want the old Conservative Party back. We could have taken advantage if we’d had a more credible and acceptable position on the deficit. Gordon got the economics broadly right in the financial crisis but he got some of the politics wrong. He seemed to be the guy who was good for the war but not so good for the peace. I said to him on one occasion: “You’re likely to become the Churchill of this.” The guy whose strengths the public recognised in fighting the crisis but they didn’t think was the right person for the next leap forward.
I bet that went down well…
You don’t understand the relationship I had with Gordon. I can say these things to Gordon. You don’t have to sound nasty or spiteful when you say these things. You can have a perfectly good conversation with somebody you’ve known for 25 or 30 years.
But when you read your book, and indeed Alastair Campbell’s diaries, between 1994 and your second resignation, you clearly thought the man wasn’t fit for the job and you advised Tony Blair to get rid of him at one point.
I didn’t advise him to get rid of him. I advised him to reshuffle him. Alastair’s record is a diary. What you are reading is night after night the world according to Alastair’s mind and head as it was then. Mine is a more reflective and analytical book. Drawing yes, on my experiences and what happened, but I hope giving a balanced account. That’s why I include Gordon’s own words on how he saw the situation, why he found it so frustrating, why it was driving him so mad. Just as it was totally aggravating for Tony as well. You see it from both sides.
Tony Blair was being very weak. No, not being very weak. Managing a situation which he was unable completely to cure.
He could have cured it by being stronger. Every time he seemed to give in to Gordon Brown.
It’s very easy for an outsider – and we are all outsiders if we’re not the PM – to say of a prime minister that he should have done this or that. Tony had to trade off or balance the frustrations of having a difficult chancellor, but also a good and effective one in many respects. And consider the risk of destabilisation of his government and the party if he had shuffled Gordon out of the Treasury. Now, that is a judgement call that only a PM can make. True, there were options. But his judgement had to be about what was in the broader interests of the government. How was he going to sustain it? If you contrast Blair with Thatcher, Thatcher’s cabinet fell apart at the end of the 1980s. She drove very senior members to resignation. They walked out and finally got rid of her. That didn’t happen in Blair’s case. If he had shuffled Gordon he might have created the same circumstances which saw Thatcher’s cabinet breaking up at the end of the 1980s.
What about the broader interests of the country? I can’t understand how you, Alastair, Tony Blair – you experienced these deeply unbalanced rages from time to time from Brown – how could you have allowed…
Politics is about passion.
But this went beyond that. There was something fundamentally wrong about the way Brown would react to situations. And yet he was unopposed as party leader.
In a lot of cases Gordon was right. Gordon came into government in 1997 with a clearer gameplan and set of policies about what he was going to achieve than Tony did for the government as a whole.
He had a brilliant side to him, and no doubt still does. But I would argue that he wasn’t fit to be PM and yet he was elected unopposed. Every single Labour MP knew what he was like and yet none of them had the guts to do anything about it.
Who’s the person who called for a contest rather than a coronation? Me! I was the only person who did. I went on the Andrew Marr Show when I was being interviewed from Brussels and said that the interests of the party, the government and the country would be served by a contest, not a coronation. And I was right. Because Gordon suffered more than anyone from the shoe-in.
What was your biggest frustration in the election campaign?
We certainly had zero resources. It was shocking. We couldn’t even use our ad agency. We had no bought media. That wasn’t the case in 1987, let alone 1997. My second frustration was that we had failed to hammer out an electoral strategy and only the leader can make sure that happens. As I describe in my book, that process hadn’t happened. What I wanted was to get the best possible result in the circumstances, but above all to see the Labour Party united and with its dignity intact whatever the outcome. Keeping that campaign together and on track, making sure that we didn’t either fall out or fall apart was quite an achievement, given the pressures. I was the guy in overall charge. I wasn’t organising the campaign itself, others were meant to be doing that. If I made any contribution it was to ensure that we emerged with dignity and, much to people’s surprise, we even emerged having robbed Cameron of an overall majority.
That was a surprise to you? You thought that he was going to win.
Of course it was a surprise, because it’s not happened in British politics. It hadn’t happened since 1974 and even that was a real flash in the pan.
You did not plan at all for a hung Parliament?
The polls did not indicate that would be the outcome. We could and should have started paving the way for that eventuality not weeks before, but years before. We needed a good relationship with the Liberal Democrats of the sort that Cameron and Clegg were able to create. We hadn’t put in that spadework.
In his book on the coalition, David Laws contrasts what your negotiating team were able to do with the Tories.
Do you know the difference? The Tories had a head-start. They had very good personal chemistry between their two leaders.
But they hadn’t beforehand. They barely knew each other.
No, no, no, no. Please. They did. I know a little bit more about this. Thirdly, and most importantly, that was the outcome they wanted.
I shall send you a copy of the book, because I think you’ll find it very interesting. Obviously he’s writing it from a Liberal Democrat perspective.
I’m sorry, Iain. With the number of seats that we won, we were not in a good second place. We lost that election and to put together such a coalition and stay in power on the back of it would have been very hard, if not impossible, for us to achieve. I stand by my view. It’s not a criticism, it’s an observation. Chemistry between Cameron and Clegg was good.
You heard the conversation initially between Brown and Clegg, didn’t you? You were there.
I heard all the conversations and indeed, was in the key meeting…
… and it was a one-way conversation.
It’s not a one-way conversation. Iain, please don’t introduce your views and prejudices … It was a perfectly good conversation between Gordon and Nick. But it wasn’t one in my view that was going to deliver a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition. The personalities were wrong. The politics didn’t stack up. But don’t blame me or the Labour Party. It would have helped and made a difference if we’d won 20 or 25 more seats. But we didn’t.
What book are you reading at the moment? Niall Ferguson’s biography of Siegmund Warburg.
What’s your favourite view? The view from Anacapri towards Naples.
Best friend in politics? Roger Liddle.
What food do you most enjoy? Apart from mushy peas obviously? Unfattening Italian.
What do you do to relax? Read, run and cycle, and look at DVDs, but very infrequently.
What makes you cry? Emotion.
Invite four people to a dinner party, living or dead. In politics they would be people like Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Macmillan, Jack or Bobby Kennedy. What women would I invite? Difficult. Oh, Barbara Castle.
Which period in history would you most liked to have lived through? The Second World War and the Labour government that followed.
If the producers of Strictly Come Dancing come knocking at your door, what might you say? They had their opportunity and now they can get lost.