Delivering the Leadership

Nick Cohen

  • Mandy: The Authorised Biography of Peter Mandelson by Paul Routledge
    Simon and Schuster, 302 pp, £17.99, January 1999, ISBN 0 684 85175 X

In his realist classic of 1984, First among Equals, Jeffrey Archer has a Labour minister from a Northern constituency disappearing with a prostitute for five minutes or so. She recognises Raymond Gould and turns to blackmail once the business is done. Gould refuses to deal and she takes her tale to Mike Molloy, a Mirror reporter. Molloy confronts Gould, who refers him to his solicitor, Sir Roger Pelham.

A few minutes later when the phone rang again Raymond still hadn’t moved. He picked up the receiver, his hand still shaking. Pelham confirmed that Molloy had been in touch with him.

     ‘I presume you made no comment,’ said Raymond.

     ‘On the contrary’ replied Pelham. ‘I told him the truth.’

     ‘What,’ exploded Raymond.

     ‘Be thankful she hit on a fair journalist because I expect he’ll let this one go. Fleet Street are not quite the bunch of shits everyone imagines them to be.’

Molloy kills the story. Gould rises to become Labour leader and – I do hope I’m not spoiling it for you – is made prime minister in the concluding sentence of a thrilling final page.

Critics returned to this scene after the reporters of the News of the World showed that journalists could indeed be a bunch of shits, by setting up and bugging conversations between Archer and a prostitute. The passage was still being thrown back at him in 1987, when a libel jury awarded record damages against the paper, thus putting paid to the suggestion that Archer had engaged in extra-marital sex. It has taken 12 years for Archer’s analysis of journalism to be vindicated. The master’s intuitions about the bonds of good fellowship in the Westminster-Fleet Street nexus were confirmed by the reception of Paul Routledge’s very unauthorised biography of Peter Mandelson, the Labour Member for Hartlepool who would like to be prime minister.

Routledge, an Old Labour hack, set out with an apparently impossible ambition – to do a service to the Labour movement by taking on the second most powerful man in the Government. His tough talk sounded like saloon-bar bragging until, to the astonishment of all who knew him, Routledge brought down Mandelson. But the minister’s resignation was a messy affair for the author and an instructive one for those of us who watched Mandelson’s confused allies attempt to restore order.

Routledge’s dislike of Mandelson is a consequence of his trade unionism and his friendship with Charlie Whelan, Gordon Brown’s former press officer. The Chancellor might appear to outsiders as the willing servant of a free-market consensus which has cracked in those parts of the world – roughly one-third – currently in recession and worse, but to Routledge and others on the left he presents his dispute with Mandelson as a fight between a democratic socialist and a gilded opportunist. Its origins, however, have nothing to do with ideology. They lie in the only act of operatic passion in New Labour’s anaemic story: the moment of great betrayal when Mandelson switched from Diet Pepsi to Diet Coke and took his support from Brown to Tony Blair, thus denying his former friend what Archer would doubtless call the greatest of all prizes. It says much about Mandelson’s self-confidence that he engaged energetically in the subsequent war – a campaign conducted with off-the-record briefings, the supplanting of Brownite X with Blairite Y in the fifth most senior post at the Department of Trade and Industry and anonymous accusations from 10 Downing Street of lunacy in Number 11 – while knowing all along that the Chancellor’s camp had a secret which might ruin him. ‘There’s a thermonuclear bomb ticking underneath Mandelson,’ Whelan whispered to lobby correspondents as Routledge’s publication date grew closer. ‘It’s going to blow him away.’

In 1996, when he was living on £46,000 a year, Mandelson borrowed £373,000 (eight times his MP’s salary) from Geoffrey Robinson, an industrialist Blair put in the Treasury after New Labour’s victory. Robinson’s fortune had been inflated by dealings with Robert Maxwell, the Channel Island tax havens and a legacy from a satirically named Madame Bourgeois, a Belgian heiress. He had no political base in the Commons and may have felt it politic to bankroll Blair’s closest ally. Mandelson did not declare his enormous loan, acquired on such preferential terms that it was a gift by any other name, in the register of MPs’ interests. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry also forgot to mention the debt to civil servants in his department when they began an investigation into Robinson’s affairs. This was careless. Robinson had been close to Blair – the Prime Minister and First Lady took their children on holiday to his Tuscan villa – but by December, his loyalties were clearly with Brown. He had been all but finished by successive scandals. As his reputation was shredded, the Brownites were tormented by suspicion. Unnamed ‘sources’, who were everywhere at the time, pointed out that several of the anti-Robinson exposés were written by Blairite journalists. It’s possible Robinson may have decided to take Mandelson down with him. More plausibly in my view, Robinson calculated that Blair would never desert Mandelson: by tying their names together, he would, he thought, let Number 10 know that his own dismissal was sure to raise pertinent questions about Mandelson’s fitness to remain in office.

In any event, Routledge had a story to tell and he sent it to his publishers. No one who knows the book trade will be surprised by the sequel. Presented with a sensational document and an urgent need for secrecy, Simon and Schuster posted a proof copy to Roudedge at the Independent on Sunday’s office in the House of Commons, which wouldn’t have mattered if Routledge hadn’t left the paper a year earlier to join the Mirror. The envelope was opened and its contents read. Instead of stealing a colleague’s work and sharing it with his or her readers – a disgraceful Fleet Street habit, but one sanctified by tradition – the culprit went to Mandelson and gave him a summary of Routledge’s findings. The detail of what was later leaked suggests that photocopies of the most damaging pages were given to the minister along with a promise to say nothing and leave this one to him. Rival papers later named the Independent on Sunday’s political editor as Mandelson’s nark. She denies being a government spy, and may be telling the truth. I can think of at least five journalists in Westminster who would rather protect Mandelson than publish the scoop of the year. Not all my colleagues are shits.

The Guardian, like many papers before it, was investigating how Mandelson could afford to purchase a Notting Hill home, have it done up by a minimalist designer with a maximum rate-card, while buying a £70,000 house in Hartlepool, dressing in Savile Row suits and patronising the best restaurants. (The questions have still not been answered, incidentally. We now know that, as well as receiving £373,000 from Robinson, Mandelson had a £150,000 loan from the Britannia Building Society and £50,000 in a Coutts bank account. There was no family money. His grandfather, Herbert Morrison, left his daughter nothing. Although Mandelson’s salary increased when he briefly served in the Cabinet, the gap between income and outgoings remains dizzying and unexplored. Only the English can dismiss the need to ask impertinent questions of a politician who is consuming conspicuously without visible means of support as puritanical and tasteless.) The terms of the loan from Robinson were known only to Mandelson, Robinson and their solicitors. Unless one of them talked, the Guardian’s inquiries were liable to be fruitless. Mandelson decided on a pre-emptive strike. He told the Guardian what Routledge had found in the week before Christmas, hoping that after a few days’ fuss, the fire-curtain of the holiday would fall and his name would be old news when normal media service resumed.

This, too, was a miscalculation by the grand manipulator. As his power slipped away, opinion-formers wheeled and squawked. For 24 hours, friendly journalists stuck to Mandelson’s script and tried to deflect attention onto Brown; they then covered Mandelson’s resignation with wistful predictions of his return. Routledge added to the bonhomie by saying he was considering abandoning the life of a rude hack. If his manuscript had not been stolen, he would have cut the passage about the loan from his book, he said. He knew that Whelan would be blamed for leaking it to him (he was) and would have to resign (he did).

The Sun, the soul of New Labour, said the affair ‘stank’ and its condemnation of Mandelson helped push him out of the Cabinet. Within three weeks, the editor’s nose had cleared. He hired Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, Mandelson’s spin doctor, as a political consultant to write hymns in praise of his once and future king in the leader columns. The paper was repeating a giddy pattern set in the autumn. On 28 October Matthew Parris, the politician turned journalist, said in passing to Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight that Mandelson was gay. He wasn’t breaking a confidence: the News of the World had outed the minister in the Eighties. But there had been no public reference to his sexuality since in the mainstream media. Mandelson thought that he must and could keep the conversation away from sex, in tabloid Britain, of all places, because he believed the public would never accept a gay prime minister. (Hubris is Routledge’s favourite noun in this book, and you can see why.) Parris unwittingly provided the excuse for an ersatz scandal filled with exclusive revelations of what was already known. The red-blooded and red-necked Sun began its contribution with a uniquely tolerant leader. Mandelson was ‘a talented politician’ with ‘a brilliant mind’. ‘We say to Mandelson: Tell the truth. You will win respect for your honesty.’ On 9 November it reversed its U-turn and applied the most shop-worn tactic of anti-semitism to sexual politics. A covert pink conspiracy was secretly pulling the levers of government, media and monarchy, it reported under the front page headline: ‘Tell us the Truth, Tony: Are we being run by a gay Mafia?’ Three days later the paper decided that, after all, we weren’t and reversed the reversal of its U-turn. The Sun would be nice from now on, ignore grubby trivia about politicians’ sex lives and get on with covering ‘what really matters in life’. To show he meant business, the editor called Parris, who had a column in the paper, and fired him.

The editor, whose name need not detain you, explained he was happy with the coverage his flip-flops had received because he wanted the Sun ‘to make a noise’. The only noise that could be heard was the sound of mocking laughter.

Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Sun, three other national newspapers and the BSkyB satellite network, will keep up the bullying and flattery for as long as Mandelson has the ear of the Prime Minister. Murdoch’s bid to buy Manchester United was referred to the DTI in September, when Mandelson was Trade Secretary. Alastair Campbell, Blair’s spokesman and Britain’s unelected minister of propaganda, worried that the takeover would expose the contradictions in the ruling ideology of élite populism. (On the one hand, New Labour is Murdoch’s facilitator. On the other, the supporters of the most fêted club in the country expected the Government to stop Murdoch getting his hands on their team.) Campbell phoned Tim Allan, director of corporate communications at BSkyB, to find out what was happening. He didn’t have to introduce himself. Allan was Campbell’s deputy at the Downing Street press office until he took a well-padded chair in a Murdoch office. Campbell then called Rosie Boycott, the editor of the Express, and turned down a lunch invitation. (Curiously enough, in April 1998 Boycott had given Routledge the political editorship of her newspaper, only to snatch it away after senior Blairites informed her that they decided who should write about politics in the free press – and Routledge’s views were not to their liking.) Campbell was agitated because Boycott had invited him to lunch with Elisabeth Murdoch, who had been given control of BSkyB by her fiercely meritocratic father. Murdoch Jr is a friend and dancing partner of Mandelson’s. Campbell didn’t want to encourage cynical rumours by being seen in her company at a delicate moment.

The Express group is owned by Lord Hollick, a New Labour peer and government adviser, who retains the services of Philip Gould, Tony Blair’s private pollster and focus-group organiser. As the pundits wrestled with the pseudo-ethical pseudo-problem of Parris’s repetition of old news, and reached no clear conclusion, Amanda Platell, editor of the Express on Sunday, received a picture of a male friend of Mandelson’s and decided to run it. Mandelson lobbied everyone he could think of to stop the story appearing. He ordered the Press Complaints Commission to censor the paper, and when he was told it had no power to intervene, he threatened to abolish it. The item appeared, hacked back and underplayed, on an inside page. Mandelson said he could not understand why Express staff had not been disciplined. All Platell’s friends who had backed her decision to publish suddenly found pressing reasons to avoid talking to her. She was sacked in January. Jeremy Paxman, supposedly the meanest interviewer in Britain, had been mortified by Parris’s aside in the October edition of Newsnight. He rushed from the BBC studios to Notting Hill and posted a handwritten apology at midnight through Mandelson’s door. Mandelson refused to accept his regrets and said that Paxman had conspired with Parris to embarrass him. The Editorial Policy Unit of the BBC (known as ‘Editpol’ to the Corporation’s staff) sought to assuage his anger. ‘Please will all programmes note that under no circumstances whatsoever should the allegations about the private life of Peter Mandelson be repeated or referred to on any broadcast,’ it instructed the controllers of all the radio and television stations in the world’s largest network. Journalists protested and Mandelson’s cabinet colleagues accused the BBC of giving him privileged treatment. Their conspiracy theories were dismissed as fantasy by a BBC spokesman (‘we would take the same action for anyone’). As he was speaking, Glyn Mathias, a BBC political correspondent, was screaming, ‘Are you gay?’ at Ron Davies, the Secretary of State for Wales, who had resigned after being caught searching for the kindness of strangers on Clapham Common.

The Director-General of the BBC, Sir John Birt, was knighted by Tony Blair and worked with and befriended Mandelson at London Weekend Television in the early Eighties. LWT executives became millionaires when a share option lottery in 1993 fell well for them. (Among the lucky LWT managers, incidentally, were Melvyn Bragg, Barry Cox and Greg Dyke. They provided most of the £79,000 Tony Blair spent on his campaign to become Labour leader. Bragg was ennobled by New Labour, Cox is a senior executive in the ITV network and Dyke’s contributions to Labour funds are not likely to hinder his chances of becoming the next director-general of the BBC.) Mandelson was condemned to watch his colleagues prosper with a minimum of effort while he received a lower-middle-class salary working a 60-hour week for the labour Party. Like the Prime Minister, he had come to move in circles where excessive wealth is the norm and, because self-pity is the defining vice of the metropolitan rich, is seen as barely adequate to cover the costs of thieving tradesmen, children who want it all and nannies who are little better than extortionists in Peter Jones aprons. Labour, Mandelson said just before his fall, was ‘intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich’. When the Guardian story broke and Mandelson thought he was still managing the news, he was confident it would be sufficient to say that Robinson thought ‘it important for me to get settled in a home base in London if I was going to be effective as a minister’. He didn’t appear to grasp that his explanation would not satisfy the 95 per cent of Londoners and 100 per cent of Hartlepool voters who had settled for more modest home bases. You don’t need to be a sociologist of genius to trace the links between environment and consciousness in this affair.

After Mandelson resigned, Lady Carla Powell wailed publicly about the traumatic treatment of her confidant and soul mate. Mandelson had stayed with her while his Notting Hill base was redesigned. Her husband, Sir Charles Powell, was Margaret Thatcher’s foreign policy adviser. One of Powell’s brothers, Jonathan, is Tony Blair’s chief of staff; a second, Chris, manages the Labour advertising account. Mandelson is friends with Tory MPs; Prince Charles; Drue Heinz; Linda Wachner, an American tycoon who had him flown across the Atlantic in her private jet; and the owner of the Ministry of Sound, who provided him with a free chauffeur and limousine before the election – ‘we are a professional, mobile team and the days of relying on a penny-farthing machine are over,’ Mandelson told those who questioned the propriety of the gift. Along with George Robertson, Mo Mowlam and Chris Smith, he was trained by the fascinating and secretive British-American Project for a Successor Generation, which instructs young and friendly natives, who look likely to climb the provincial ladder of power, on the advantages of following the American way.

Do you begin to see the outline of a political class? A bickering and faintly risible élite, whose ranks are filled with old Thatcherites, downsizing executives, ageing media monopolists and New Labour modernisers smelling slightly stale after less than two years in power; an establishment at odds with itself over Europe and sexual freedom, but one which can compute the value of favours given and received in an instant and is aware that if perceptions can be managed, interests need not conflict in Tony’s One Nation Britain.

Routledge is impressed by the absurdity of it all. Mandelson’s ‘hubris prevents him from seeing that the Mandy network, assembled so ingeniously over decades, is incapable of delivering the leadership,’ he writes. ‘The New Establishment – even assuming it holds together for more than the New Labour salad days – is an audience, not an electorate.’ Many of those he interviews agree. Mandelson has a fatal flaw for a politician: the knack of making implacable enemies. He doesn’t merely defeat opponents, but tries to destroy them and to ensure, as he told a Labour press officer who crossed him, that they will never work again. Time and again his victims, invariably former friends, repeat that they’ve been betrayed by an electoral calculating machine without a principle or policy he wouldn’t drop if a focus group told him to. ‘The result of the Mandelsonisation of the Labour Party is that we seem to stand for nothing positive and clear whatsoever,’ Ken Livingstone said in a speech Chris Patten repeated with approval when he was the Conservative Party Chairman. Brian Sedgemore, a left-wing Labour MP, has said that the hatred of Mandelson ‘is consistent throughout every geographical area and cuts across gender, class, social background and occupation’.

Yet in a suicidally frank interview given in the autumn, Mandelson presented himself as the antithesis of a poll-watching office-seeker and sneered at the pygmies who surrounded him in government. ‘They’re always sitting on the fence. At the first sign of controversy they run for cover. They’re always there, sort of creeping about in the undergrowth in order to maintain their positions and keep their place in the Cabinet. Well, they are the majority. The minority are the people [with] the strong personalities, strong views who are not cowards, who are risk-takers. You’ – he said, addressing his interviewer, Michael Portillo – ‘have paid the price for being a risk-taker, and so have I.’

Note the facility with which he appropriates the cant of Wall Street Journal puffery for buccaneering executives as the highest praise a democratic politician could wish for. (A senior Murdoch executive said he had realised New Labour would cause him few problems after seeing Mandelson stare like a ‘star-fucker’ at executives at a corporate party.) The recklessness that comes from belonging to a faction without significant opposition in party or country is as startling as the familiar self-pity and the imaginative failure to realise that many members of this Cabinet creep and fencesit because dissent in New Labour is a sackable offence. Mandelson makes himself an easy target for derision – the phrase Notting Hill Nietzsche springs to mind – yet the question remains: if he sees himself as a risk-taker, who has he been taking risks for?

I won’t bore you by discussing the abandoned pledges to redistribute wealth, end American control of foreign policy and re-nationalise the utilities. We all know these were impossible and, on mature reflection, undesirable notions that Mandelson was right to fight. Yet even if we make life easy, and examine his career from the point of view of a New Labour idealist, Mandelson has acted decisively to undermine the mildest hopes. Blair’s promise lay in his commitment to open up public life and devolve power. Mandelson has helped him retain control and devolve administration instead. He dismissed the need for a strong Freedom of Information Act and the measure was neutered. (He first voiced his opposition to glasnost in 1996, so clichés about the corruption of power do not apply.) As pretty much everyone is in favour of freedom of information, you cannot accuse Mandelson of being a tool of focus groups in this case. A minimum wage is just as easy to sell in a conservative country: even the Americans have one. It rewards work rather than idleness and doesn’t cost tax-payers a penny. Mandelson lobbied to give a lower rate to young workers and nothing at all to teenagers aged 17 and under. Whether he was opposing the naming and shaming of firms that wanted to sell arms to dictators or making the votes for tradeunion recognition in workplaces the most difficult ballots to win in Europe, he was consistently prepared to risk unpopularity if conservative goals demanded it. At all times he knew he could rely on the eager approval of Blair. I hesitate to criticise Routledge, who has indeed done a great public service, but when he says the Mandy network has failed to give Mandelson the power-base he requires to become a conservative ‘Labour’ prime minister, he forgets that it does not need to: it already has Tony Blair.