Know thine enemy. Lord (Peter) Mandelson has recently opined on electoral politics, and when he pronounces on that topic, wise Tories will listen carefully to one of their Party’s most relentless foes.
I have known his Lordship for more than 40 years; we were colleagues on Weekend World, the Brian Walden programme. When he was poached to be Labour’s head of communications, I got a phone call from Norman Tebbit. Was it necessary to take this Mandelson fellow seriously? “Oh yes it was”, I replied. I did not say that over the next decade, Mandelson would help to transform the Labour Party into an election-winning machine with a leader who would turn out to be a brilliant politician. I would not claim such a gift of prophecy, but did tell Norman that the new recruit would be much better in the new role than any Labour apparatchik since 1945. So it proved.
Interestingly enough, it was widely assumed back then that under the new Mandelson regime, Labour was making the way straight for Gordon Brown. Young Master Blair was eager and obviously able, but he still seemed a promising student rather than a future PM. Brown would have agreed.
The gradual transition from Brown to Blair was an interesting spectacle. Some accused Peter Mandelson of cynicism and ruthlessness. Having arrived under Brown’s aegis, he brushed him aside when he found a better prospect. That is unfair. Although Mandelson came to realise that it had to be Blair, he did feel guilty at the apparent desertion and knew how much pain this would cause Brown (he did not know the half of it). After all that, Brown’s willingness to recall Mandelson to his government demonstrated that he too recognised his need for the one-time deserter’s electoral skills.
Leaving the Blair/Brown psycho-drama on one side, Peter Mandelson had one great advantage. Traditionally, his Party had been beset by shibboleths, sentimentalities, ideological obsessions and long-standing quarrels. A lot of Labour supporters may have insisted that they wanted to win, but only on the right terms. Mandelson’s response to all that was simple: contempt. He wanted power, and when he used that word, he would roll it around his palate like an oenophile assessing a serious port. As far as he was concerned, almost nothing should get in the way of a Labour Election victory. There were two exceptions. Mandelson would have been delighted to support David Miliband, but never thought much of the younger brother. Labour had chosen the wrong Millipede. But that was as nothing to his disdain for Jeremy Corbyn. Did he merely relax in the certainty that Corbyn was unelectable, or was he also relieved by the defeat? Unlike Keir Starmer, a then Corbyn supporter, Mandelson sat that one out and waited for normal service. He believes that this has now been resumed.
But when it comes to ideology, Peter Mandelson still only carries hand luggage – and it always turns out to be empty. Even Blair had more in the way of belief. There is one apparent further exception, which actually proves the point. Although Mandelson is a Euro-fanatic, he never thought that this would be a contentious issue. Like much of the political establishment, he assumed that we were in the EU to stay. After the rude awakening, he shows little sign of resuming that battle. The next election is more important.
That shapes everything. In his recent long statement, Mandelson tells how much he wants to win. He praises Keir Starmer for purging the Corbynistas and making Labour electable. He does not actually say that this is a restoration of Blairism – within the Labour Party, that might still be too provocative – yet the implication is clear. But he will do nothing to alarm the broader electorate, which means that on an even more important topic, he is silent.
He insists that it is time for a change and that with the loony Left gone, Labour is ready for power. So if Labour did win, what would a Starmer government actually do?
Surely the voters will not support a fifth Tory term and will give renewed new Labour another chance? That is clearly possible, yet there is a problem. Will Blandelsonism be enough?
Admittedly, Tony Blair’s pre-1997 message was pretty thin. No opposition had ever enjoyed such a superficial scrutiny of its electoral programme. Blairism was little more than warm fuzzies. Yet the man himself had a Kennedy-esque dynamism which distracted attention from the amiable vagueness. God help us, a lot of people actually found him inspiring. Sir Stumbler, on the other hand – is merely vague. He cannot be accused of inspiration.
Sunak has one advantage. Whenever Tony Blair needed help to worst John Major, many Conservative MPs would come to Labour’s support. That is no longer the case. The mood in the Tory party is improving. A fair number of characters who had been tempted to shrug their shoulders and give up now think that there might be a chance.
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“No fifth term for the Tories”, the Blandelsons will chant. “Let Rishi carry on his promising first term”, the Tories will riposte. We shall see.
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