As you know by now, in the current issue of Total Politics (out today) I have an interview with Peter Mandelson, which has caused a bit of a frisson in political circles over the weekend. Ed Balls called it the "twitchings of a political corpse". Nice. He rather made Peter Mandelson's point for him.
Quite a few years ago I published Peter Mandelson’s book THE BLAIR REVOLUTION REVISITED. At that point he was between jobs, having resigned for the second time from the Blair government. He was a fish looking for water. What impressed me about him then was his complete understanding of what was expected of him as an author. I thought he was a class act then, and I still do.
Ever since then I remained in email contact with him, as I had his private email address. From time to time we’d exchange pleasantries, but one thing I noted was that each time I sent him an email he would reply within minutes. Andrew Neil is another one with the same admirable habit. But our paths didn’t cross again in person until the autumn of 2008, shortly after his surprise return to the cabinet for his third incarnation.
I was in the House of Commons walking up the wide staircase to the committee room corridor when I spied Peter Mandelson coming the other way. I didn’t expect him to remember me, so I affected not to notice him. But he immediately stopped and said hello. “How’s the blog doing,” he asked. “All the better when you feature,” I responded. “As it should be, Iain, as it should be...” And he then glided away. It was a typical Mandelsonian performance. Right, I thought. I’m going to get an interview with you if it’s the last thing I do. And two years later, I eventually succeeded.
There’s no doubt about it, as you will shortly read, Peter Mandelson gives good interview. I haven’t quite worked out yet if he realises what he is saying or whether he does it deliberately, but there were more stories to come out of this interview than any other I have ever done. I don’t think Peter Mandelson has ever knowingly given an uncontroversial issue in his life. And long may it remain so.
You can read the full interview on the Total Politics blog HERE, but here are a few snippets.
Ed Miliband knew his electorate. He wasn't playing to the country, he was playing to the people who were voting for him. And he was very successful in doing that.
Well, he has a very strong character and personality, as his brother discovered. He has strong personal qualities and something that people don't realise is that when I came back in 2008, the colleague with whom I spent most time in the Cabinet was Ed Miliband. Partly because he was a neighbour in North London and partly because he went out of his way to befriend me. He really wanted to bury the hatchet and to put all that he did for Gordon against Tony and all that he did amongst the Brownites against the Blairites.
People tend to forget him in that. Everyone thinks it was all Ed Balls.
He played his part, but he also wanted to put it behind him, and by befriending me and by spending so much time with me, I think he succeeded in that. I didn't realise he had such strong leadership ambition. For me, the sort of default candidate and next leader was David. To be honest I didn't really think that seriously about Ed as a would-be leader, and I missed that. And as I said I spent much more time with Ed, and Ed was going out of his way to be more friendly towards me when I came back in 2008 than David did. But that again I think shows some of Ed's cleverness.
Or deviousness. But it's interesting that you didn't identify him as a leader. Do you think he actually has what it takes to be a leader?
Well I think the fact that he came forward and challenged his brother, and conducted such a strong campaign, shows that he does have what is needed in politics to be the number one person. I mean, the one piece of advice I gave at the beginning of the leadership contest, was that he shouldn't say anything to win the vote of the party that might make it subsequently more difficult to win the votes of the country.
But he ignored that advice didn't he?
He ignored that advice but he's made up for it since.
Have you found it difficult in the last six months?
Yes, I have, the truth is... Look, I know I should say to you that I've adjusted, I've moved on, I'm happy, I'm looking to the future with confidence. But the truth is that I feel a sense of bereavement for our government. Personally I feel like a rather displaced individual and I'm not coping perfectly. But my word, I would have been in a much, much worse position if I hadn't written a book and had that to talk about and present and do events about. It is a bit of therapy, but I also thought that it was an interesting story and a historical account that needed to be given. I had not just a ring-side seat but I was in the ring for a lot of the time and if you're going to the sort of book I've published on somebody like me, without being vain about it, I think that politics and how we've seen how we can understand the past and see the future would have been the poorer.
Have you ruled out a fourth comeback in terms of being in the frontline of things in politics.
I tend not to rule out of anything in politics, given my career, given my roller coaster career. Would you predict anything? I don't think so. But I'm not going to sit by the telephone. I'm not going to hang around in expectation or with some sort of entitlement. I will find other things to do in my life. Things that I enjoy, things which I think are stimulating or important but also enable me to earn a living. If you were to ask me though, whether fundamentally I'd rather be in public service or the private sector... I'm a public service man. I was brought up in that way and that set of values and motives will never leave me.
But I don't think anybody understands your relationship with Gordon Brown...
They understand it a darn sight better having read my book.
But when you read in your book, and indeed Alastair's book, the things that went on between ‘94 and your second resignation, you clearly thought the man wasn't fit for the job and you advised Tony Blair to get rid of him at one point.
I didn't advise him to get rid of him. I advised him to reshuffle him.
You know what I mean.
No I don't know what you mean, could you please be a little bit more specific.
In Alastair's book, and I thought in yours, but I might be wrong...
Alastair's is not a book, it's a diary. And what you are reading is night after night, the world according to Alastair's mind and head as it was then. Mine is a more reflective and analytical book. Drawing yes, on my experiences and what happened, but I hope giving a balanced account and that's why I include in the book Gordon's own words on how he saw the situation, why he found it so frustrating, why it was driving him so mad. Just as it was totally aggravating for Tony as well. You see it from both sides.
You do, I accept that. But there are so many instances which you catalogue, and so does Alasdair and you don't really disagree on them.
But they happened.
The interesting thing about both yours books is they're on the same hymnsheet. Often two people can attend the same meeting and they have entirely different recollections. That hasn't happened here.
It was quite clear what had happened. It was also clear what Tony was doing during this time.
Being very weak...
No, not being very weak. Managing a situation which he was unable completely to cure.
He could have cured it by being stronger, surely. Every time he seemed to give in to Gordon Brown.
Look, it's very easy for an outsider to say of a PM that he should have done this or that. He had to trade off or balance the frustrations of having a difficult chancellor, but also a good and effective one in many respects. And on the other hand, the risk of disruption, destabilisation of his government and the party if he had shuffled Gordon out of the Treasury. Now, that is a judgement call that only a PM can make and it's easy for an outsider - and we are all outsiders if we're not the PM - to say that he should have done this or could have done that. True, there were options. But his judgement had to be about what was in the broader interests of the government. How was he going to sustain it. And if you contrast Blair with Thatcher, Thatcher's cabinet fell apart at the end of the 1980s. She drove very senior members to resignation. They walked out and finally got rid of her. That didn't happen in Blair's case.
It did in Brown's.
Well, one person resigned.
Hazel Blears, James Purnell, others.
Fine, but I'm talking about Tony Blair now. You asked me a question about Tony Blair. Was he right or wrong? And I'm saying it's very easy for us to say he should have done this, he should have done that. But if he had shuffled Gordon he might have created the same circumstances which saw Thatcher's cabinet breaking up at the end of the ‘80s.
What book are you reading at the moment?
Niall Ferguson's biography of Siegmund Warburg.
What's your favourite view?
The view from Anacapri towards Naples.
Best friend in politics?
What food do you most enjoy? Apart from mushy peas obviously.
What do you do to relax?
Read, run and cycle, and look at DVDs, but very infrequently.
What makes you cry?
Invite four people to a dinner party, living or dead.
In politics they would be people like Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Macmillan, Jack or Bobby Kennedy. What women would I invite? Difficult. Oh, Barbara Castle.
Which period in history would you most liked to have lived through?
The Second World War and the Labour government that followed.
If the producers of Strictly Come Dancing come knocking at your door, what might you say?
They had their opportunity and now they can get lost.
Well if that has tempted you, read the full interview HERE.