The Letter by Mandelson That Secured Blair's Future; Peter Mandelson Was in Action within Minutes of the Death of John Smith, Claims Paul Routledge

By Routledge, Paul | The Birmingham Post (England), January 5, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Letter by Mandelson That Secured Blair's Future; Peter Mandelson Was in Action within Minutes of the Death of John Smith, Claims Paul Routledge


Routledge, Paul, The Birmingham Post (England)


Arch fixer Peter Mandelson knew his hour had come when Labour leader John Smith suddenly died of a heart attack.

Mandy moved before the body was barely cold. In 10 or 20 minutes of learning of the tragedy, according to key players in the drama, he was telling journalists over the phone: "It's got to be Blair."

Four days later, he wrote a treacherous letter to his old friend Gordon Brown ostensibly offering to help him run for the Labour leadership - but actually seeking his withdrawal from the campaign. In the letter, Mandelson:

Hails Brown as the "biggest intellectual force and strategic thinker" in the party, but tells him he has a "problem" in not appearing to be the front-runner.

Warns him that if he did stand it would be difficult for Tony Blair to withdraw in his favour. The result would be "hugely damaging." Referring to then Shadow minister Robin Cook, Mandelson writes: "by standing you would trigger Cook and possibly others. This would surely not be in the interests of the party."

Offers to fight on Brown's side, but says such a campaign could only be effective by "explicitly weakening" Blair's position.

Advises Brown to pull out with dignity - "you either have to escalate rapidly (and to be effective I think I would need to become clearly positive with the press in your favour), or you need to implement a strategy to exit."

Mandelson also shyly pointed out to Scotsman Brown that Labour's "overriding question" was conquering the South.

It was a ruthless act which will be long-remembered and, perhaps, the most devious political knifing of recent times. But then Mandelson was long-practised in the dark arts.

Smith, perhaps Labour's most popular leader, was struck down with a massive heart attack at his home in the Barbican, London, on May 12, 1994, at the age of 56.

His loss plunged Labour into collective grief. But Smith's personal and political tragedy was scheming Mandelson's opportunity.

He did not miss it. And, given his close association with Brown he was able, in the words of Oscar Wilde, to "pursue his task with all the venom of an old friend."

His first move was discreetly to get hold of journalists on the phone, his favourite method of "spinning." Senior politicians, including Shadow Cabinet members, were aghast but could do nothing to stop him. Mandelson knew it was crucial to move swiftly s o it should be quickly accepted Blair, not Brown should take over the Labour leadership.

Blair knew this too. He was visiting Aberdeen when he heard of Smith's death. He called his wife Cherie, then Mandelson.

But Mandelson was playing a double game. Late that morning, he went round to Brown's London flat in Great Smith Street, where the shadow Chancellor was grief-stricken at the death of his friend, mentor and fellow Scot. Sitting with close confidantes, Bro wn was trying to compose an obituary for the Daily Mirror. His thoughts were not on the leadership, as Mandelson swiftly divined. And his aides had no clue of the behind-the-scenes plotting for the leadership.

Mandelson took the temperature of the Brown camp and set off on his campaign to promote Blair.

On May 16, he wrote Brown his brilliantly crafted but subversive letter. Its full content, printed here, is revealed for the first time. Brown did not answer it as it was clearly calculated to undermine his position.

The treachery of the letter is breathtaking. Such buttering-up before reaching for the knife reveals a mind capable of plumbing the depths of deception. The suggestion that "It would not be very difficult for Tony to withdraw in your favour" is a cruel d evice to exploit the close relationship between the two men.

Of course, Blair was not even a candidate at the time - nobody was - so the question of his "withdrawal" was a red herring.

As was the warning that by standing, Brown would trigger Cook "and possibly others" to run, which would not be in the party's best interests. …

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