What have you done, Geoffrey Robinson?

<i>The Unconventional Minister: my life inside New Labour</i> by Geoffrey Robinson (Michael Joseph, &pound;16.99)
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The Independent Culture

Before the publication of this book, Geoffrey Robinson had a pretty poor image. Now he has an even worse one. The newspapers, callers to phone-ins, even Labour MPs, compete to portray him as vindictive and suffering from delusions of political grandeur. In most people's eyes, he is the wealthy politician who threw his money around in the pursuit of power until he was forced to resign over a home loan.

Before the publication of this book, Geoffrey Robinson had a pretty poor image. Now he has an even worse one. The newspapers, callers to phone-ins, even Labour MPs, compete to portray him as vindictive and suffering from delusions of political grandeur. In most people's eyes, he is the wealthy politician who threw his money around in the pursuit of power until he was forced to resign over a home loan.

None of these impressions is correct now, or was correct before Robinson wrote the book. As someone on the outer circle of the inner core, Robinson has become part of the New Labour illusion in which nothing is what it seems. Far from being vindictive, Robinson is a genuinely convivial personality, who remained pretty convivial after his departure from government in 1999. He continued to host political soirées and more swinging political parties at his flat at the Grosvenor House hotel.

Sometimes, his conviviality was unpredictable. An ex-colleague of mine was once in mid-conversation with Robinson only to look up and find he had left the room to have a shower. No one knows what he will do next.

In some respects, that includes Robinson himself. For a long time, he was undecided whether or not to put the boot into Peter Mandelson. Early in this book's erratic journey to publication, he resolved not to write any potentially damaging material on Blair himself. There are several episodes discreetly omitted as a result.

On Mandelson, he was unsure. He wanted to put his side of the home loan story, but I suspect had big doubts about attacking Mandelson more ferociously. It was a mistake, diverting attention from the rest of the book and making Robinson seem less gracious than he is about his political fate.

He is a little patronising to Blair at times, reflecting the Treasury's disdain for the Prime Ministerial grasp of economic policy. But inadvertently the book challenges the cliché that Brown runs the show.

Robinson reminds us that Blair vetoed Brown's desire to have a higher rate of tax on earnings above £100,000 a year. Immediately after the election, Blair intervened to block Brown's wish to raise interest rates by at least half a per cent. In the only interest-rate decision taken by this government, a quarter-per-cent rise was announced, after a row between Blair and Brown. It is fortunate for that relationship that the Bank of England now decides.

Yet Blair has given his Chancellor freer reign over economic policy than just about any predecessor. This is partly because he trusts Brown's instincts, but also because Brown is the more creative politician in policy terms. From autumn 1994 until his resignation, Robinson was one of the small entourage that worked and socialised with Brown. Even in government, Gordon and the boys would often end the day at Geoffrey's flat to watch football and enjoy the latest gossip.

It is wrong to suggest, as some commentators have, that Robinson was a peripheral figure. It was impossible to be peripheral in that Treasury team, in opposition or government. The policies that made Labour different under Blair came largely from Brown and his friends.

Directly or indirectly, Robinson had input into the windfall tax, welfare to work, private finance initiatives, relations with business, the handling of the euro, the tough line on public spending and taxation reforms. The story he tells on these issues will go largely unread for many years, but historians will find it a valuable source.

Even so, Robinson should not have written this book. Although there are useful insights, the overall subtext is: "Look at the role I played in this government!" He did indeed play a role, but it is for others to make that judgement. Memoirs written years after events often appear like acts of self-justification. They are doomed to do so when the focus is on a government still in its first term.

This week, a Commons committee dismissed allegations against some of Robinson's business dealings. Such verdicts, coming from a source other than Robinson himself, do more for his reputation than this book.

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