Peter Mandelson saw himself as the third man at the heart of New Labour Chris Harris for The Times.
Since Peter Mandelson is not a man on whom humility is known to sit lightly, you might think it would be galling for him to talk about other people rather than himself, particularly when he has his autobiography to promote.
But Mandy — an abbreviation that seems singularly inappropriate when you meet him, so uncuddly is he and mindful of his dignity — appears to prefer his role as The Third Man (the title of his book, with its shadowy nod to Graham Greene) even now that his role of consigliere to the two architects of new Labour is historical.
But then the “other people” are, of course, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and although their love-hate relationship is well known, Mandelson having been at the centre of that fallout — in the thick of it, indeed — he writes about the sulks and tantrums, the violent emotions and frustrations with a visceral intensity.
Has either of them read the manuscript? “No, of course not.” Neither of them emerges particularly well, to put it mildly. Blair seems weak, unable to make a decision without checking it first with Mandelson and in relation to Brown, like a coddling and ineffectual parent who constantly threatens to discipline a child but never follows through. Brown — until he asks for Mandelson’s help in the last gasps of his regime — comes across as seriously unhinged.
“I don’t agree with that at all,” Mandelson says. “Tony comes across as someone who had to spend too much of his time and had to devote too much of his energy dealing with this insurgency from next door — but kept his calm and maintained a sort of real sense of purpose as Prime Minister and delivered right to the very end a good, sound, strong new Labour government.
In the case of Gordon, he goes through three phases: pre-’94; ’94 to 2007 and 2007 to 2010. And the middle period, as I recount in the book, was awful.
“That was when he kept saying to me, ‘Why are we doing this to each other? We’ve killed each other. It’s no fun. It doesn’t make being a minister any more enjoyable — you know, we’ve got to stop it’. But no sooner had he said that to me then we’d be off again in the same sort of cycle.”
Do you think, I ask, that it was his lieutenants who helped to foster that? “Oh, I think he was very badly served. The unbridled contempt that some people around Gordon had for Tony and those who worked for him was very destructive. They were constantly winding him up — partly because that’s what they felt, partly because that’s what they thought he wanted to hear.
“And also because they believed their own propaganda. You know, they really thought Tony was a weak, ineffective prime minister whose policies they disagreed with and that were leading nowhere — certainly not in the direction they wanted. They wanted a different sort of new Labour government with a different set of policies.”
Reading his book made me want to knock Brown’s and Blair’s heads together and smack their bottoms; their stand-offs seem so very childish. “I did,” Mandelson says. You did not smack their bottoms! “I didn’t do that but I tried to knock their heads together — and it was very difficult.
“But politics has always attracted very strong personalities.” Mandelson gives examples from his grandfather Herbert Morrison’s time in government to a roll call of Wilson, Brown, Callaghan, Jenkins and Healey — “and it wasn’t a walk in the park with them either”. So you don’t think Gordon’s and Tony’s relationship was unprecedently awful? “It was not unprecedented but I do think it was exceptionally bad!” A merry laugh.
I ask him more about the dsyfunctional relationship at the heart of new Labour. “What I call this dysfunctional relationship, which, you notice, Gordon didn’t like the term at all. He said, ‘Oh, that’s just your way of saying that Tony’s right and I’m wrong.’ Well, actually, it wasn’t my way of saying one was right and the other was wrong. It was a way of saying that ‘things could really be a lot better if you guys worked closely together’.
“And a lot of the time they did. It was, in a sense, given what they went through, surprising that the bond between them was never smashed. There was always something that connected them. Indeed, there was always something that connected all three of us, which is why I was able to come back in the way that I did.”
Mandelson says that he cannot really be bothered to read newspapers (apart from one of The Times’s rivals, which might be considered somewhat ungracious of him in the circumstances). “To be honest, I very rarely find anything to read in them, hahahahahaha.” I suppose when you were in government that can’t have been the case? “No, I didn’t read them and, to be honest, not only did I not miss them but I didn’t find that professionally I needed to have them in order to do my job.”
This stretches credibility from a man for whom the word “spin” might have been invented and whose masters were obsessed with the media. Neverthless, he sets great store by what newspaper editors tell him about his political allies, and rivals. “Tony is an easier person to advise than Gordon,” he says. “Now why is this? I always remember having dinner with Paul Dacre, the Editor of the Daily Mail — it must be getting on for a decade ago — he liked Gordon, and Dacre was Gordon’s favourite journalist and newspaper editor — quite how they were able to conjure up such warmth — hahaha — I don’t know, but they did.
“But Paul made a very interesting observation about Gordon. First, in his view, Gordon was put on Earth by God to do good and had genuine convictions and they were a force for good. Secondly, that he has a tin ear as far as Middle England is concerned; he doesn’t easily get on to their wavelength, hear them or respond. And, thirdly, that he is an incredibly stubborn person. Once he thinks he’s right, once he’s made up his mind, it’s very difficult to get him on to a different track.”
This last point is presumably what did for Mandelson’s and Brown’s friendship when Brown was convinced that Mandelson had abandoned him for Blair. “Not really,” Mandelson says. “What he couldn’t get over was the fact that Tony had become leader and Prime Minister.” But in the book you make it clear that he did blame you for your role in that. “How I put it in the book is a little more subtle than that.” The turning point was later, but still very early on, in a country retreat where new Labour’s inner core had assembled to fine-tune their policies, when Mandelson did not back Brown in a disagreement with Blair.
After the latter retired to bed, Brown rounded on Mandelson, saying that whenever the two of them agreed on something, Blair would always go along with that decision. “Yes, and I said, ‘I am not going to work like that. I’m not going to enter into a sort of conspiracy.’ And then he said to me, ‘Well, make your choice — you’ve made your choice’.” And then off he flounced? “Gordon doesn’t flounce.” Stomped? “No, he closed his bedroom door purposefully.”
Mandleson had his own “door-closing, purposefully” moments. At one meeting, when he felt that Blair had not backed him up sufficiently, Mandelson walked out, the door slamming behind him — inadvertently, he has always said. “I wasn’t in a temper,” he maintains.
That may be so, but Blair told him that he would not tolerate walkouts and added: “We are not players in some Greek tragedy” and, poignantly: “Have you any idea of how despairing it is for me when the two people that have been closest to me for more than a decade, and who in their different ways are the most brilliant minds of their generation, will not lay aside personal animosity and help me win?”
“I’ll tell you what I felt,” Mandelson says. “I felt that I’m not being allowed to do my job. I’m being tripped up by Gordon and his people and it’s not right, and I’m getting the blame for it. That isn’t fair.” Wasn’t that your role, in a sense, to take the blame for everything? “It did, indeed, evolve into that. But for it to go on for, sort of, ten years was a bit . . .”
Then he says: “I don’t think I’ve got anything to be bitter about any more.” But you did feel that you were used, didn’t you? “Yes, I do.” And you were, actually. “Yes, I was.” Laughs. “But the people who were really angry about this were my friends. They feel that I was used, overused and used for far too long — but that I either didn’t see or I didn’t do anything about it.”
He has spoken to Gordon since the defeat but not seen him. How is he? “He’s fine.” Up days and down days? “I don’t know because I don’t speak to him every day. But it’s not an easy thing to come through a general election campaign. They are brutal and fierce, and after 13 years in office you’re really having to fight to give people the argument to elect the same party for the fourth time. That’s tough. It’s partly as you’re presented but also partly as you feel.
“Gordon’s a workhorse and he had these two show ponies gallivanting around, attracting . . .” Show ponies? “Clegg and Cameron. After 13 years, you amass all sorts of reasons why people don’t want to vote for you any more . . . and I don’t want to get into a sort of media-kicking exercise here but they [the Conservatives] weren’t really put under any serious scrutiny or pressure.
“What is Gordon? He’s a knowledgeable, informed, erudite, experienced, hard-nosed guy . . . he’s not a showman. He’s not an actor. He doesn’t do theatre” — which Mandelson pronounces in a fluted, old-fashioned way as “the-at-ah”. There is something Queen-like about the way he talks, with a capital Q, but not remotely queenie.
I wonder where he was when Bigotgate happened and did he think: “Oh God! That’s it”? “I was in the party headquarters and I did think that was it. But I was wrong — because it didn’t change as many votes as you’d have assumed it would, given the media treatment of it.”
But even Mandelson has to admit that Gordon looked absolutely terrible in that last debate. “The reason he looked so exhausted and pale is because he was exhausted and feeling very pale; he’d had a terrible fright the day before and a very difficult night recovering from it.”
On the day of the calamity, Mandelson went off and did one live interview after another. But now that it is all over, Mandy doesn’t have to put a brave face on it: “It was bad enough, Ginny. I mean, I thought it was a show-stopping moment, let’s put it like that.”
Did you, like Gordon, put your head in your hands when you heard it? “I didn’t have time to put my head in my hands.”
I must say, having spent weeks with Blair, Brown and, indeed, Cameron over the past year or so that all three men are enjoyable company. But there is certainly a different atmosphere between Blair and Brown; the Tigger and Eeyore of new Labour. The former, with his fabled optimism, really is a sunny, energising presence; whereas Brown is fascinating, but even when he seems positive there is a slight undertow of melancholia.
“Tony does make you feel jolly. He’s quite an upbeat person,” Mandelson agrees. “I mean, Tony is not somebody who by and large gets angry, loses his temper and kicks the furniture. He can be quite chilly and disapproving but he’s not somebody who would ever fall into a great trough of despair.
“The only time during all the years I’ve known Tony when he got discombobulated was on personal things — attacks on his family or Cherie or when his integrity was called into question.”
Cameron, says Peter Mandelson, is “very amicable, with a lively sense of humour. He’s a bit like Tony in that sense. He’s jolly. But essentially what defines David Cameron is that he’s a rather patrician Tory. He’s neither a Thatcherite nor a One Nation Tory; Chris Patten and others like that had quite a philosophical view of Conservatism — what it stood for and what it should do for all the people in the country. I don’t think David Cameron has an ideology. He has views. He has attitudes and he has some prejudices.
“He has a certain ‘born to rule’ thing about him; a sense of entitlement — somebody who thinks that he would be good at governing and being Prime Minister. Indeed, I always remember the Editor of The Daily Telegraph telling me, a year ago, when they had Cameron to dinner, the first question they asked him was, ‘Well, why do you want to be prime minister?’ And he said, ‘Because I think I’d be good at it.’
Now that’s not bad as a sort of first answer but if it’s all the answer you have . . .” He goes on: “That doesn’t mean to say that he’s a bad politician. I think he’s actually rather a good politician — but he is excessively political in a sense. He has values but he doesn’t have a set of fixed, political beliefs that flow from a particular political outlook or philosophy.
“I mean, what is his view of the role of government or the State or markets? Does he really believe, as the ‘Big Society’ implied, that government should just get out of the way and let people organise their schools and hospitals as they wish? I don’t believe he actually thought that through. I don’t think he invested a great deal of time in it. It was a marketing device. It was a narrative that was put into his hands or head by Steve Hilton [his director of strategy]. He could see the political appeal of it because it was neither wholly the State or wholly the market; it was his version of the Third Way. But, under examination, it was like sand disappearing through your fingertips.”
Last September, Mandelson told the journalist Bryan Appleyard, when asked whether he would put his assets to work under the Tories, that “in the right conditions and on the right basis I probably would”. And he followed this up with a vintage Mandelsonian line or two — sounding like something out of a Powell and Pressburger film — about the importance of heeding the call to serve his country. But now, when I put the same question to him, he responds as though I am mad.
“David Cameron?” he asks incredulously. “The Prime Minister? What would he do with me?” This batting back of a question with a barrage of his own questions, presumably in order to destabilise the questioner, is also very Mandelson. Anyway, he now says, “I don’t think I’m quite his flavour of the month. Or the year.” I ask him what he is going to do with himself now that he has finished his book — or, to be strictly accurate, finishing, since Mandelson was still writing it when we met. Have you got a job lined up? “Nope, I don’t have a job. I have absolutely no idea, as I sit here talking to you, how I’m going to earn my living after August.”
Do you feel that you’ve achieved your political potential? “No,he says in a rather aggrieved tone. Do you feel fulfilled? “For the time being, but” — he laughs at the absurdity of the notion — “but not otherwise, no! I feel young! [He will be 57 in October.] I felt as if I was really in my stride when I was a minister. I hated leaving because I felt that I knew what I was doing. I enjoyed it. I mobilised and rallied people and I think that I had the right policies that now seem to be falling to the Tories’ sword, one way or another.”
What of the future of new Labour, does Peter Mandelson believe that it has one? “I certainly don’t believe new Labour is dead. New Labour is an attitude of mind, it’s a way of thinking of politics, of conducting politics with the whole country and not just a section or a class of the country.” So is it a case of a new new Labour?
“The era we have just been through was the sort of Blair-Brown-Mandelson era and it’s time for people of a new generation to rethink new Labour and work out how they want to present the party and its policies for the next ten years or whatever.”
Is that how long you think Labour will be out of power? “No, I don’t. I’m saying that we’ll be implementing those policies during the course of that ten years.” And you would like to be part of that? “Of course I’d like to be part of it. If there was another Labour government, I would like to be considered for membership of it. That’s why I’ve taken the trouble of writing a book, with an introduction and an epilogue, but also a lot of experience and lessons through that time that I’ve been in politics which I want people to understand.
“I want people to interpret and apply to the party as it goes forward. Now what I don’t want to do is impose my views. I don’t want to give a sense that people have to calibrate their own views or make me a reference point — ‘Are you pro or anti what Peter is saying?’ ‘Are you pro or anti his analysis?’ — I don’t want to play that role.
“What I would like to do, however, is to continue as an active member of a party I’ve been a member of all my life — to be as active in the House of Lords as I can be — and I want to be able to contribute to my party’s welfare and its success, and in one way or another I will do that until my dying day. But in the meantime, of course, I will also have to earn a living.”
Will you endorse David Miliband? “No, I won’t endorse David Miliband. I’ve said at the beginning that I won’t endorse a candidate” — presumably because he wants to keep his options open. “I know his brother, Ed, very well and like him. I know Ed Balls.” Why does everyone seem to hate Ed Balls?
“They don’t hate Ed Balls. I don’t hate Ed Balls. I’ve got to know him quite well over the last two years, and he is a person of strong views, tough analysis and he has a forceful personality. But that’s what you want in a leader.”
Then mindful of how this sounds, “I’m not saying I’ll endorse him because of that. But if you ask me what I would like to see in the next leader of the Labour Party, it’s — yes — a strong sense of values and a vision, yes, a strong personality but also somebody who has the toughness and is able to say things to the party which they won’t neccessarily like or immediately agree with.
“Being a leader of a political party, somebody who aspires to be prime minister, you know, requires a heck of a lot from you. It’s not a walk in the park.”
Trying to shift Peter Mandelson from the political to the personal is no walk in the park either; more like an icy trek in a hostile landscape with no signposts to guide you. Nowhere is this more true than on the subject of his sexuality and his private life. It is not that we are obsessed with talking about it but that he is obsessed with not talking about it. He may, in fact, be the most closeted “out” gay out there.
This off-limits approach seems a bit unneccesary and even sad in 2010; lending a false credence to the idea that there is something abnormal and secretive about same-sex relationships rather than their being just part of everyday life.
He has been with his partner — as he probably does not call him — Reinaldo Avila da Silva for at least 12 years; he allowed photographs to be taken of them together in 2000; they have been together in the presence of the Queen; he writes about him in his book. Both his father and his beloved mother have passed on — “they were wonderful, my parents” — so he has none of the David Laws constraints. But he bridles at any mention of Reinaldo and avoids referring to him even by name, saying: “I’m very protective of the people in my life who are not politicians, who are not in the public domain and who I felt intensely protective of and I still do.”
Contrast his approach with that of Chris Smith, the former Labour Cabinet minister who became the first out gay MP in 1984 and who in the late Nineties, when he was Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, regularly gave interviews at home with his partner beside him without attracting fuss or opprobrium.
Contrast it with Mandleson’s friend, Lord Browne of Madingley, the former chief of BP — far more recently and spectacularly outed — who talked openly, with pride and affection, about his partner, Nghi Nguyen; about their love of opera and travel and eating out.
When I spoke to Lord Browne this year, he said: “One of the gifts of 2007 is that I can be very open. Two parts of me have been joined together, really for the first time. It’s wonderful because it makes me happier and it allows me to have different relationships with people. Because it is what it is, and I am who I am, and that makes a very big difference to me, and I’m probably lighter in my step.”
When I mentioned attending a recent fundraising event for Stonewall, the campaign group for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals, Mandelson barely seemed to have heard of it: “Dinners? . . . Er — we used to have them at party conference.”
He could not be less interested — “I’d rather talk about the book, I’m afraid” — which is fine, to a point, if you are gay and not involved in politics. But when you have been a key person in a government that deplored Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28, the controversial Bill that made it almost impossible for schools to combat homophobia — and managed only to overturn it after a long battle in 2003?
And a year later, after more struggles, passed the Civil Partnership Act, which puts same-sex partners on the same legal footing as heterosexual married couples, it seems a bit odd, even negligent, to be bored (or affect to be so) by the whole subject. Cameron, for example, has repeatedly emphasised his party’s commitment to being inclusive of gay partnerships and, graciously, has publicly declared that new Labour has taken the country to a more tolerant and civilised place.
Mandelson’s excessive privacy about this issue has a distorting effect and can make him appear cold and uncaring. It also makes him seem rude. When we talk about such innocuous subjects as cooking — “I am mother-taught,” he says, “roasts and vegetables” — and I ask him if Mr da Silva can cook, he simply blanks — in fact, stonewalls me, in the original sense.
When the interview is interrupted by a charming little girl who bursts through the door, to much cooing and hugging from Mandelson — “Hello, my little darling, how are you? You’re my little friend, aren’t you?” — he does not introduce her or her mother. [I had been told that Mr da Silva’s Brazilian family were staying but not, of course, by Mandy.]
His manners may not be all that brilliant; at one point, I have a coughing fit and most normal hosts would break off and get a glass of water. But he was oblivious and just wanted to crack on.
We are sitting in the living room of his Primrose Hill house which, I read, cost £2.4 million and was bought without a mortgage after an advertising agency that he helped to set up was sold.
When I refer to his amazing house — it is a lovely home in a quiet, private, almost bucolic street — he asks, defensively: “In what way, ‘amazing’?” It is cosier than I expected, expecting a minimalist Seth Stein interior, as in his controversial Geoffrey Robinson-lent Notting Hill pad, which prompted the first of Mandelson’s two resignations. I sit on a plump, dark apricot velvet sofa and across a glass coffee table, covered in art books.
Mandelson leans back, languidly, in an armchair, framed by a wall of books. There are some Asian artefacts and a couple of large modern works, one of which he says was a present, with large rust-coloured strokes.
In the back part of the room, with an Eames black-leather recliner and stool, there is a photographic work of multiple gold and violet pansies, which he says dates from his time in Brussels. What would he say is his fatal flaw? “I think my fatal flaw was not seeing sufficiently in myself what others saw and therefore I was insufficiently aware, and I think that I’ve overcome that over the last four or five years.”
Are you more comfortable about your gayness now and about the fact that you are in a relationship with Reinaldo? “Look, I’ve never been uncomfortable about my sexuality and I’ve never been uncomfortable about any relationship that I’ve had throughout my life.”
If I asked you if you were in a civil partnership now with Reinaldo, that seems to me to be a perfectly nice question. “It is a perfectly nice question but it’s a matter for us what we do, and if we do take that decision” — an Arctic smile — “we’ll let you know.”
His book includes a couple of searingly honest pieces of advice about his character from those closest to him. When I mention them, Mandelson tries to bat them away as having been responses to particular periods in life.
Philip Gould told him, after one of the scandals, that there are two Peters — “the warm, generous, outward, loving side” and “the darker, more defensive, closed and sometimes menacing” side, and that the two sides could no longer co-exist. “Your vulnerability undid you and will undo you again unless you change.”
He also impressed upon him the need “to be open and honest with friends” and made Mandelson realise that “I would have to learn not only to advise others but to take advice. Real recovery would also mean being more open — in every way [my italics].”
It seems to me that Mandelson has some way to go until, like Lord Browne, “the two parts of him” are joined. But on one level at least there has been an incredible journey — a microcosm of the one from old Labour to new Labour — with Mandelson’s transformation from the Prince of Darkness to National Treasure, as exemplified by his standing ovation at last year’s Labour Party conference (confirming Blair’s prediction, albeit rather late in the day, that we will know that Labour is truly new Labour when it has learnt to love Peter Mandelson) and that iconic photograph during the campaign of Mandy ballroom dancing with a tiny delightful pensioner.
Peter Mandelson is famous for his charm, menacing or otherwise, but I suspect that he is rather socially efficient in his employment of it. Certainly, his high-society friends — Carla Powell and the Rothschilds — must get the full blast but also his old friends — the writer Robert Harris and Lord Liddle, the Labour peer — are incredibly loyal to him, as he is to them. But, for whatever reason, he did not feel compelled to demonstrate his more attractive qualities to me.
As the evening closed in — after multiple changes of times and days for the interview he finally offered a Sunday evening from 6pm to 8pm — he switched on the Anglepoise lamp next to his chair, sitting in a pool of light that conveyed the faintly sinister impression that he was cross-examining himself.
As he leant backwards, arms behind his head, extending his legs in a feline way, so that all one could see of him was his resolute chin and dark, greying hair, he resembled that actor — oh, what was his name, I asked, who was in Twin Peaks? A blank look. You know, by David Lynch. Another blank look. Blue Velvet? Nothing. Desperate Housewives? Ditto. (It was Kyle MacLachlan.) But after this I began to notice that these modern, metroplitan cultural references were not on Mandy’s radar at all. At one point, I teased him and said: “You know, you really should stay in more.” In a curious way, he is like Madonna, with her boast that she does not read newspapers or watch television, in a sort of self-imposed bubble.
He had not heard of John Pawson, the inventor of Minimalism, thinking that he might possibly be an actor. He did not know about Amy Winehouse when I talked about her father wishing that she would do more cheeful songs: “Oh, does she not do happy?”
But when I ask him whether he is metrosexual — another much used media buzzword that is alien to him — in his grooming, we eventually, albeit comically, get somewhere. So I’m talking to him about how my younger teenage son and his friends are all obsessed with hair products and so on.
“I’m in my mid to late fifties,” he says, “What do you mean by hair products?” Waxes, gels, grooming, moisturisers, spas. “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘spas’.” Do you use a moisturiser? Long pause. “I don’t know what you mean.” Oh, Peter [thinking, ‘Get a grip, man, this is not a trick question’], for heaven’s sake, cream that you put in your skin to make sure it doesn’t get dry!
“Oh, of course I do. I get very dry skin because I’m constantly exposed to air conditioning.” But you must have heard of the word “Moisturiser!” “No, cream!”
Honestly! This is like talking to some bloke from the 1950s! “I am from the 1950s,” he says, “that’s my problem. I am a bit … I think I’ve got rather traditional ways of behaving and how I want to spend my life.” At last, for the first time, I get the sense of something authentic. In what way? “I think I’m . . .” (a pause of 29 seconds, which is a lifetime in an interview) “I think I’ve got rather . . .” (another pause of 10 seconds) “not conservative… but conventional… you know, going into the countryside . . . my dogs — my lovely dogs — Jack is away on a sleepover with his friend, Bridget, I miss him now, he’s been away for three days.
“I like conversation and then I like going to bed early and then I like, sort of, getting up and sitting with a family around breakfast. And I like singing and I like dancing and I like sitting in a garden and I like reading a book and — I dunno, is that old-fashioned?
“I think I am a product of my age and my upbringing.” It is probably impossibly ambitious to try to get a handle on Peter Mandelson. This is a man whose own “lovely brother” — as he says, showing me a recent present from Miles, a clinical psychologist, a book on the artist Arthur Giardelli — has described as an enigma.
But when I say to him that I was struck by the descriptions of his cottage in Foy, near Ross-on-Wye, with its beaten-up old velvet three-piece and tiny living room, his refuge from the maelstrom of politics in the dark ages of old Labour, he visibly thaws. “That was the happiest time of my life,” he whispers. “One day I will wend my way back. I think I have not made the transition freely into being in the 21st century.”
This more than anything might explain his abhorrence of laying himself bare — being personal, being open about Mr da Silva and his private life is, perhaps, all too modern for him. What an irony that the man who helped to modernise the Labour Party and was a Svengali of spin — that most modern political weapon — is so retro.
We might associate him with swanky holidays in Corfu and hobnobbing with captains of industry but Mandelson prefers to see himself in another way: “If I could go eventually and have a smallholding or have a garden,” he says, yearningly, “an English country garden … fresh air, scenery, animals, trees, walks, to be near or on a farm, and a river . . . that’s really all I want.”