Battling Biographies: Campbell / Mandelson / Blair. So what?

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    6th July 2010

    Amazon: ‘The Third Man is set to become the most talked about political memoir of the year.’

    Due for release in SIX DAYS  – Mandelson’s ‘The Third Man’

    Is it really likely to be more “talked about” than Tony Blair’s ‘A Journey’, which is due out on 2nd September?

    [You can pre-order – Blair’s ‘A Journey’ here]

    See previous post – When THE became A Journey’. Also at Tony Blair Office website.

    So, why is Lord Peter Mandelson in such a hurry to get on the shelves his own version of his time at the centre of New Labour?  With a solemn cover picture, perhaps designed to be reminiscent of  a tie-straightening, inscrutable “Fifth Man” Mandelson may have scored an own goal.

    Two months before Tony Blair’s memoir is released the Fifth – sorry Third Man is on the bookshelves. He couldn’t have worked on it a lot in recent months, surely? Presumably he’d been busy helping Brown into a hoped-for fourth term until the beginning of May?  Has he been putting this book together for months, years?

    Or is he worried about what Mr Blair might say about him?

    Perhaps it is just that he wants ‘The Third Man’ to get the chattering classes jaw-clucking more than has Alastair’s Campbell’s (Vol 1) Diaries – ‘Prelude to Power’ .

    Or perhaps it IS that Mandelson is keen to re-assert his position as The THIRD Man, behind Blair and Brown. Given that Campbell’s Diary account has Mandelson often described, and not just by Campbell, as one of a number who might have done us all a favour by being in some other game.

    The time might just be right. Before anyone else starts blabbing.

    You can buy Campbell’s Diaries here if demand has not made it currently unavailable – Alastair Campbell Diaries, Vol 1

    THE THIRD, FOURTH, FIFTH OR EVEN SIXTH MAN?

    There’s a rumour in the press that Blair and publishers are not too happy that Mandelson and publishers will be getting into the bookshops before The Master’s “The Journey”.

    Let’s be realistic here – if you considered that you had been ‘central’ to a ‘project’ like New Labour wouldn’t you too wish to make sure your record of how you were so central is recorded? Yes, of course you would.

    It’s hardly rocket science.

    Is it Peter?

    IT WON’T STOP BLAIR’S BOOK SELLING

    In fact it might even help it sell more.

    The world is very interested in what Tony Blair has to say about his political journey, as it should be. Only political scribblers in Britain and some in the EU are all that bothered about Mandelson’s thoughts, especially if they’ve already read through Campbell’s Diaries.

    It may be some comfort to Tony Blair that the worse that Mandelson doles out against his former boss, the first ‘former boss’ – Blair,  not the second, Brown –  the more interest will be raised on what Mr Blair has to say about him and them.

    And it provides Mr Blair with time to add or amend if there is anything in his own tome that needs timely adjustments.

    ANODYNE Vs ANGST?

    If there really IS concern in Blair’s quarters over the timing of Mandelson’s book it may be because Blair’s memoir may then be seen as being rather anodyne, given his dislike of confrontation or even his distaste at personally criticising colleagues.

    On the other hand Mandelson’s biography may well be payback time – jam-packed with emotion and angst, as seems to have been much of his time in politics, especially in the early period when Blair first became party leader.

    If you’ve read Volume One of the Alastair Campbell Diaries, Prelude to Power, you’ll know why I say that. I am now just over halfway  – to around May 1996 – a year before Labour’s first victory, and it continues to astound me. So far its themes are consistent. Consistently awful, consistently repetitive in their awfulness. Well written, but worrying. It makes me wonder what is going on right now behind Downing Street doors.

    CAMPBELL’S ASSESSMENT

    BACKGROUND

    Bear in mind that Campbell updated his diary almost daily. It’s always possible that with the benefit of hindsight he may have tidied up some of his initial thoughts, though I don’t accuse him of such. There is a plethora of information there that I for one had not heard before.

    DYSFUNCTIONALITY

    Dsyfunctionality, like a family with an over-abundance of teenage male hormones, crippled the opposition Labour party right from the start. From 1994 when John Smith died and Blair unexpectedly took over as leader rather than Brown, the trouble started.

    From within the mix of strong personalities emanated an all but self-destructive mess, described frequently as “grim” by both Campbell and Blair. It is fairly obvious that Campbell means to convey the messages that there are three reasons for the widespread belief that New Labour (a title Campbell claims as his) was a well-oiled machine, when in fact insiders knew that nothing could have been further from the truth.

    • 1. Campbell’s consummate abilities as a press communicator and handler kept the secret under wraps.
    • 2. The governing Conservative party were in such a state of meltdown after John Major had replaced Margaret Thatcher (and had actually won against all the odds in 1992) that the press and public gave Labour a lot of rope.
    • 3. The Labour party did not hang itself with this rope largely due to Blair’s attractiveness to the public, especially in comparison to the grey man, Major. All aided by points 1 and 2.

    WHAT OF THE TOP MEN? (AND THEY WERE MOSTLY MEN)

    The inner top group were – Blair, Brown, Mandelson, John Prescott, [the late] Robin Cook –  plus Campbell.

    Figuring frequently before 1997 were Jack Straw, Jack Cunningham, Donald Dewar, Clare Short and Harriet Harman.

    PERSONALITY ISSUES

    Campbell leaves the reader in little doubt that Gordon Brown was difficult from Day One. Never able to come to terms with Blair being party leader, he seemed to have his own court, with such as Charlie Whelan holding the ring. Brown seldom consulted others, and often failed to participate in policy forums or conversations within such groups, even when explicitly asked to do so. Brown complained that he had been left out of the decision-making loop, an accusation denied by his colleagues.

    Stepping on one another’s sensitive toes seems to have been par for the course.

    Brown seemed to hate Mandelson with a vengeance, and the feeling was mutual, or it became so. Brown could not forgive Mandelson for seeming to move over to Blair’s side in the leadership (non-)contest.

    Mandelson, jealous of Campbell’s influence with Blair and angry with Brown’s accusations against him, was subject to temper tantrums and histrionics. In comparison Brown was glum silence, and maintained in group meetings a self-imposed separateness as though bored and way above any kind of group loyalty.

    Mandelson frequently marched out of meetings, banging doors as he went. Though not always the case of course, Brown sometimes didn’t turn up for meetings or didn’t come up with the promised goods.

    PRESCOTT WAS ON BLAIR’S SIDE

    John Prescott, according to Campbell, was a surprise to me. He was from the start, far more onside with Blair than one would necessarily expect. On the other hand Prescott seemed to be constantly irritated by Brown and even Campbell himself.  Prescott thought Brown was not a team-worker and was a spoiler on any policy he didn’t come up with himself, and in particular anything that Blair instigated.

    Prescott told Blair that Brown was a destructive force “out to get you”.

    However, Prescott too thought little of Mandelson’s frequent histrionics. And Mandelson found Prescott difficult if not impossible to work with.

    The man in the middle, Tony Blair, was often thrown from pillar to post. He valued all of them for their own different qualities and had a habit of letting them know this. He seemed to come to the conclusion that if push came to shove Brown was indispensable, but Mandelson wasn’t.

    According to Campbell, Tony Blair also put Campbell’s importance to the party operation and eventual success above that of Mandelson.

    BLAIR THOUGHT BROWN INDISPENSABLE

    Above all else, Blair thought that Gordon Brown was indispensable and a political genius.

    Notably Blair said, in Campbell’s account, that he believed that in the end Gordon would stand with him when the chips were down, though Robin Cook wouldn’t. Interesting thoughts in the light of Cooks’ resignation over Iraq; provided that this can be taken as an accurate portrayal of Blair’s words to Campbell at the time, which I’m sure it can.

    In conversation with Campbell Tony Blair had a recurring tendency to refer to all of them, especially Brown, Mandelson, Prescott and Short as well as some Old Labourite MPs who kept popping up on the media to opine or announce policy without permission as ‘these fucking people’ … ‘unprofessional’ … ‘not serious’.

    Meanwhile the Parliamentary Labour party, EEC, Unions and grassroots were in various states of confusion at various times. They started to believe that Blair was not in control. They thought, and relayed this through Cook and Prescott that he seemed not always able to provide leadership and direction. And not able to stand up to Brown.

    Feedback in both directions had been agreed as Brown’s responsibility. The reader is left with the feeling that Brown just simply decided not to be that conduit, knowing others would blame Blair. Members then started more loudly to question Blair’s ability to control Brown and even to lead. Perhaps that was the plan. This was particularly so in the second year of Blair’s leadership of the party, 1996.

    It seems clear from my reading so far that Campbell was, is very fond of Tony Blair. His criticisms of the former PM are mainly in that Blair’s regard for others’ abilities and his own lack of killer instinct towards colleagues who were not toeing the line were strengths/weaknesses only depending on who was measuring and on what was the eventual outcome. And most of the time Campbell concluded that Blair had this balance more right than wrong.

    More in hope than certainty they struggled on to May 1997, aided immensely by a public falling apart of the Conservtive party.

    In short, personality issues and rivalries resulted in a chronic inability to work together. It is therefore some miracle that Blair’s New Labour managed to win in 1997 with such a landslide. Campbell clearly thinks his own ability to deal with the press had a lot to do with this victory. And he is no doubt right in that. That is not to downplay Blair’s importance as a winner in the press’s and the public’s eyes, especially after he had rid the party of Clause 4, in 1994.

    Campbell never belittles Blair’s appeal and political nous, and frequently states he was “brilliant” on media interchanges, despite Blair’s own lack of confidence beforehand being habitual, almost ritual and stressful to those around his office, particularly Campbell. Phone calls at all hours of the day and night were to be expected. Campbell’s family life and his health suffered at times due to this sort of complete immersion in the needs of the Leader’s Office and of the Leader himself.

    Campbell’s diaries are some read, and come highly recommended.

    Be warned – if you are politically inclined, it might put you off aiming for the top.


    OTHER CURRENT OR RECENT BOOKS BY HIGHLY-PLACED LABOUR PARTY MEMBERS

    John Prescott – “Prezza: My Story: Pulling no punches” [hardcover]

    And then there’s Cherie Blair. This book  – “Speaking for Myself” was published after she and her husband and family left Downing Street.

    It is far less political and more personal than those of the others listed here and already published, as would be expected.

    Buy “Speaking for Myself” by Cherie Blair

    Cherie Blair has also written another couple of books. One about her days in Downing street, married to the country’s Prime Minister – The Goldfish Bowl

    And, The Perfect Man’ – no, it’s not about Tony, but someone who will not rouse jealousy in him – “Altogether Lovely, The Perfect Man”


    Widely acclaimed, Chris Mullins’ A View from the Foothills


    The spiel at the Amazon page on Mandelson’s ‘The Third Man’

    The hotly anticipated memoir of one of New Labour’s three founding architects. Peter Mandelson is one of the most influential politicians of modern times. The Third Man is his story — of a life played out in the backroom and then on the frontline of the Labour Party during its unprecedented three terms in government. Much of the book is devoted to the defining political relationships of Peter Mandelson’s life — with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Charting what he terms the ‘soap-opera’ years of the Labour government, his book is certain to ruffle many feathers. Forced to resign from Cabinet twice in three years, Peter Mandelson has cut a divisive figure through British politics but his time as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland gained him many supporters. He was a highly regarded European Commissioner before being brought back into British politics by Gordon Brown in 2008 to serve as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, and as First Secretary. Containing a mixture of autobiography, personal reflection and political history, The Third Man draws heavily on detailed diary notes that Peter Mandelson took during the events, discussions and meetings that shaped the government and the Labour Party over 25 years. He began writing the book while serving as European Commissioner, and has been completing it since leaving office in May. Much has been written about Peter Mandelson as the person at the heart of the New Labour project but this is the first time we have heard the unvarnished truth from the man himself. The Third Man is set to become the most talked about political memoir of the year.


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