My Millbank

Seumas Milne

  • The Blair Revolution: Can New Labour Deliver? by Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle
    Faber, 274 pp, £7.99, February 1996, ISBN 0 571 17818 9

In politics, Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle explain for the benefit of their less worldly-wise readers, ‘getting your way can require a degree of intrigue and manoeuvring.’ The straight-dealing Tony Blair would, they say, prefer that this was unnecessary and does not really ‘enjoy the modus operandi’. How very fortunate the Labour leader is, then, to be able to count on the services of one whose name has become a byword for political manipulation and deviousness. ‘Nobody has brought more professional skill to the debasement of British public life than you,’ Michael Heseltine recently taunted Mandelson, who beamed back appreciatively.

Indeed, so fixed has Mandelson become in the political imagination as Tony Blair’s Rasputin and High Priest of Spin that he is sometimes still dismissed as a bit of a cartoon villain: a mere courtier and media magician, with an engaging line in pantomime menace and a taste for red roses and pistachio backdrops. As the transformation of the Labour Party accelerates month by month, the absurdity of such a misreading becomes ever more apparent. The Member for Hartlepool has emerged from the shadows – where he masterminded Blair’s 1994 leadership campaign and played a central role in shaping the new leader’s core team – with a public concentration of power to set off his unequalled private influence.

For a man never elected to a single party position, Mandelson can boast an impressive portfolio. Along with his formal post as front – bench Civil Service spokesman, he chairs Labour’s general election campaign committee, sits on the campaign-strategy and policy-planning groups and has also effectively resumed the job he held under Neil Kinnock as Communications Director, though his centre of operations has now moved to the Party’s new media headquarters at Millbank – ‘my Millbank’, as he likes to call it. It has become a Westminster cliché, echoed privately by the Shadow Chancellor and one-time Mandelson intimate, Gordon Brown, that Mandelson is Labour’s real deputy leader. His grip on strategy and policy direction, as well as campaigning and presentation, is increasingly tight. When Mandelson mutters that he is unhappy, say, with Labour plans to abolish compulsory competitive tendering in local government, rest assured they are not long for this world.

All this depends, however, on his exceptionally close relationship with Tony Blair: the two have, on his own entirely credible assessment, ‘almost identical ideas’. The potential fragility of such a position is lost neither on his enemies nor on Mandelson, who tasted internal exile under John Smith and did not relish it. Belatedly weary of his Cardinal Richelieu reputation and riled by taunts that he is a hollow man without personal beliefs, the response has been a 100,000-word credo to show he can be a real politician like his grandfather, Herbert Morrison. The decision to write The Blair Revolution was made, Mandelson has explained, after reading a profile I wrote of him last year in the Guardian – ‘the single most damaging piece ever published about me’, he insists – which described how he had become the focus for unrivalled loathing among Labour MPs.

What would normally be a well-worn career step for a rising politician was a risky one for both Mandelson and Blair. It was made dicier still by Mandelson’s calculated choice – bold or arrogant, according to taste – of the former Liberal Democrat and Social Democratic Party by-election candidate Roger Liddle as his coauthor. Considering that Liddle, an adviser to Bill Rodgers in the dog days of the last Labour Government and a fellow Lambeth councillor of Mandelson’s in the early Eighties, only rejoined Labour while co-writing the book, this was not simply a case of spitting in the eye of his enemies or preferring to work with a pal. It was evidently intended to send an unambiguous message about the political and constitutional direction in which New Labour is heading.

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