Review: The Third Man

New material in the paperback edition of Lord Mandelson's memoir brings further insights into a supreme fixer's mind


'Get the point?' 'Likeable' Lord M at the 2009 Brighton party conference

'Get the point?' 'Likeable' Lord M at the 2009 Brighton party conference

By Peter Mandelson
Harper Press, £8.99

As Peter Mandelson is quick to point out, great media manipulators do not lie, they just make sure it is their version of the truth the public hears. This is the case even with the story of the publication of The Third Man. The former Business Secretary is eager to clear up a minor controversy over stories that appeared about Tony Blair's supposed annoyance over the fact that Lord Mandelson was publishing his memoirs in advance of the former PM's own opus.

"He understood why I was keen for The Third Man to appear soon after the election - however inconvenient to his own publishing plans. The last thing he wanted was an undignified scrap over who should go first. He was emphatic that media reports that he was 'livid' over my book did not come from anyone authorised to speak on his behalf."

This is spin at its most masterful. Peter Mandelson is confident of the truth of these remarks, but it is not the whole story. Could it be, for instance, that the source of the media reports was a little closer to home, perhaps even the author of The Third Man himself, keen to fan the flames of a row in advance of publication?

This is one example of the new material in the paperback edition of Lord Mandelson's memoir, written after the election of Ed Miliband as Labour leader. It contains his final, grudging recognition that he will probably have no significant part to play in the next stage of the party's development (although, like every great politician, he rules nothing out).

He is clearly disappointed that David Miliband is not Labour's leader and not entirely convinced by his younger brother's ability to appeal to the electorate beyond Labour conference and its MPs on the opposition benches. His warning is clear: "When he said New Labour was dead, even if it was just a useful flight of leadership campaign rhetoric, he risked misunderstanding what our modernising project was about."

The first surprise about The Third Man is that Peter Mandelson has written something very unusual indeed: a readable political memoir, which is at turns delightfully entertaining and genuinely moving. The second is that the Prince of Darkness is really rather likeable, although at no point does he attempt to portray himself as a nice guy. Perhaps because he no longer wields any power, even his intergalactic egotism comes across as an eccentric tic rather than a sinister character flaw.

A picture emerges of a man with a brute determination to project his version of the narrative at any given moment. This is what makes his storytelling so compelling. It doesn't matter whether he is discussing the defeat of the Militant Tendency under Neil Kinnock, the construction of the New Labour project with Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, or the last days of the Labour government; this is always someone determined to mould events to his will, and to control the way they are broadcast to the wider world.

Even the finer details of his personal dealings with people reveal a monomaniacal determination to get his own way. It is difficult not to feel a certain amount of concern for Ed Miliband and his girlfriend when Mandelson decides to defend them after his return to government in 2008.

When they have their first child, he presses them to call it Peter. In one short sentence, much of the character of the man is revealed. "They decided on Daniel, so I personally christened him Daniel Peter: 'DP' for short."

Peter Mandelson is a political animal to his very soul. This is evident when he discusses what he describes as his "refracted Jewishness". He remembers visits to the Jewish Chronicle, where his father Tony was the advertising manager for many years. But the young Peter never visited the synagogue near his childhood home in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Instead, as he points out, for his family, "Labour was more nearly a religion".

He is also, throughout this account, a politician of the centre ground. Every judgment he makes, from the abolition of Clause Four, to supporting Tony Blair over Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership, to his time as a Labour minister, is based on positioning Labour as a party of mass appeal.

Sometimes he occupies the middle ground long before others have found it. An early example of this is his position on Israel. Returning from a trip to the Middle East in the mid-1970s, he wrote an article on Israel that would now seem utterly mainstream but at the time was a challenge to conservative, UK Jewish opinion. Its argument? "Until there were two states, one Israeli and the other Palestinian, there would never be peace for either people."

Martin Bright is the JC's political editor

    Last updated: 1:42pm, April 18 2011