Loyalty and Mr Blair: remembering 2001
In the latest political shenanigans and feverish media circus over the date of Tony Blair's departure, accusations of disloyalty have been freely traded between the warring factions, and indeed the question of the degree of loyalty to himself that the prime minister is entitled to expect from his parliamentary colleagues is a genuine and complex issue. So it's fortuitously useful to have been reminded by last Sunday's Observer of an act of conspicuous disloyalty towards one of his closest friends and political allies performed by Mr Blair back in January 2001, when he precipitately sacked Peter Mandelson and effectively ended his career in British politics. The reminder comes in a long and fascinating Observer interview with Robert Harris, eminent journalist and novelist, once very close to Blair. Here's the relevant extract from Lynn Barber's interview with Robert Harris:
[Harris's] personal disillusionment with Blair came in 2001 when the Prime Minister sacked Peter Mandelson for the second time over the Hinduja passports aff air. Harris is good friends with Mandelson, who is godfather to one of his children. Friends have fond memories of a birthday party at which Harris, Mandelson, Jon Snow and Jeremy Paxman gave a rousing rendition of Village People's 'YMCA'. Harris rushed round to Mandelson's flat when he heard the news: 'Peter was like a cornered animal with hundreds of press outside; he'd been fired in this brutal way for no obvious reason. That was a revelation to me – the extraordinary indifference with which his oldest colleagues dumped him. I was with him when he rang Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, the Lord Chancellor, the cabinet secretary, and I heard one after the other tell him to shut up, basically. That was why I stuck my neck out for him – naively I'm sure – but I felt angry and aggrieved. He'd been a good friend to me when he was successful and I thought, "To hell with it, I can't just dump him when things have gone wrong." My god, to see some of the people that did – Mary Ann Sieghart [of the Times] sucking up to him in the street and then dancing on his grave!'
In the Sunday Times, Harris wrote one of the most blistering diatribes I have ever read, under the headline: 'The revulsion I feel for New Labour's coldhearted ways.'
A year or so later, in March 2002, I posted in Ephems some reflections on the dismissal of Peter Mandelson over the Hinduja passports affair, concluding — as Robert Harris had evidently also done — that there had never been any evidence that Mandelson had done anything improper in regard to the Hinduja brothers' passport applications, that Mr Blair's act in dismissing him before the allegations against him had even been investigated was almost unbelievably premature and unjust, and that had Blair waited until the facts were established he couldn't possibly have justified requiring Mandelson's resignation. A lot of the controversy at the time revolved round the question of a telephone call allegedly made by Peter Mandelson to Mike O'Brien, the then responsible junior minister at the home office, enquiring about the progress of the Hindujas' application: but (a) even O'Brien confirmed that there had been nothing remotely improper about the telephone call which he thought he remembered, and (b) since there was no record of such a telephone call ever having been made, with neither of the two ministerial private offices having any record or memory of it, it seems improbable in the extreme that it ever took place. (Mandelson subsequently said that since O'Brien claimed to remember it so clearly, he supposed he must have made the call, but that he himself had no recollection of it, a point which is not adequately reflected in the otherwise useful BBC website 'time-line' chronicling the events leading to the Mandelson resignation and the subsequent formal investigation clearing him.)
I hold no special brief for Peter Mandelson, one of the most active creators of New Labour and thus one of those primarily responsible for the diversion of the Labour Party into its present quagmires. But the record suggests that he was an exceptionally effective minister, both as Trade and Industry Secretary (post from which he was dismissed by Blair in 1998 almost as unjustly and prematurely as in 2001) and latterly as Northern Ireland Secretary, a position for which he was especially well equipped. His positive qualities have been a very great asset to the EU Commission: the Blair government has been correspondingly damaged by their wholly unnecessary loss.
Other subsequent ministerial dismissals have raised comparable questions. Those who demand loyalty from their colleagues surely have a duty to be loyal to their colleagues in return?
Postscript (8 Sept 06): The last sentence immediately above has reminded me of Auden's lines:
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return
— but I don't recall ever seeing any signs of bitterness or desire for revenge on Peter Mandelson's part, despite his fearsome reputation as the scheming Machiavelli of British politics. Someone I know who used to see him from time to time in No. 10 (no, not him!) speaks of his human warmth and informality. But he used to evoke great hostility in some quarters.