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 06 848517 4

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.

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