Peter Mandelson’s political memoir The Third Man streaking into bookshops now opens with a careful explanation of the books title. Well yes,the casual browser may agree. It is quite a claim for the former cabinet minister and election strategist to put himself on a par with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown,the prime ministers he served between 1997 and 2010.
But closer scrutiny reveals that the author is not apologising for boastfulness. Instead,he wants to rebut any charge of feigned modesty in claiming merely third place in New Labours pecking order. No matter how important all three men were,Lord Mandelson informs readers primly,there is an obvious distinction between his influence,largely exercised behind the scenes,and that of Tony,and then Gordon,who each became prime minister. It is a breathtaking moment of self-regard,confirming the verdict of close allies: a master of political spin for others,he is hopeless at managing his own image.
Born into Labour Party aristocracy as the grandson of Herbert Morrison,a deputy prime minister and foreign secretary in the Attlee government,the young Mandelson dreamed of a conventional ministerial career. Instead,he found himself pigeon-holed as a backroom manipulator: Machiavelli to Mr Blairs prince. When he finally achieved ministerial office,he was twice forced to resign,in 1998 and 2001,amid allegations of favours done by and for wealthy friends (he was cleared of wrongdoing by an inquiry into the 2001 case). Redemption came with a stint in Brussels as an EU commissioner giving him new stature as a policy heavyweight and paving the way for his final return to government in 2008 at Mr Browns calling.
Like many political memoirs,The Third Man is in part an exercise in score-settling,and it is this that has made his party hopping mad. Mr Brown is depicted as something out of the mafiosi (in Mr Blairs words),making naked,undisguised threats in a years-long campaign to become prime minister. Mr Blair is praised but also skewered: the visionary moderniser who lacked the patience to drive hard reforms through. Mr Blair is forever vowing to rein in his chancellor of the exchequer (at one point mulling a secret plan to split the Treasury in two,to break Mr Browns stranglehold on public spending),before invariably ducking confrontation. Mr Brown is every inch the power-hungry paranoid that other books have depicted.
In truth,such snippets reveal little new about the Blair-Brown psychodrama,though they provided handy ammunition for the Conservative prime minister to lob at opponents in the Commons this week. The real meat lies elsewhere. Lord Mandelson is an acute (if partial) analyst of his own party. New Labour,he argues,won over a broad constituency of voters who wanted fairness for all,meaning help for the vulnerable but support for individual aspiration. Alas,in its final years in office,he concludes,too many voters thought,while they were struggling to stay afloat,that the government was working for others: for bankers,immigrants,benefit recipients or people in far-off countries. They now wanted fairness delivered through rules on housing,immigration and welfare. Both Mr Blair and Mr Brown waited too long to try reforms in these fields.
But Mr Blair instinctively understood the aspirational voters of Middle England,and enjoyed outmanoeuvring the Tories,says Lord Mandelson. Mr Brown struggled with Middle England,and longed to crush the Tories. With their political heirs now scrapping for leadership of the Labour Party in opposition,those old dividing lines are anything but ancient history.