Never underestimate a rich man's anger when forced to resign

Geoffrey Robinson's draft is written in longhand, which is worrying for those who have crossed him
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE HOUSE that Peter bought but Geoffrey financed casts a long shadow across the Government long after Mr Mandelson has left it for a more modest set of walls. Mr Robinson, former stalwart of Gordon Brown's Treasury court, is completing his autobiography. The early draft has, I'm told, been written in longhand, which is always a worrying disclosure for those who have crossed the author. It suggests a spilling out of the soul as the midnight oil burns and the resentments flow unimpeded through the fountain pen. The result may be a catharsis for the scribbler. It is rarely so therapeutic for for his targets.

The book is said to reveal that Peter asked Geoffrey for the money to fund his new house. Mr Mandelson, by contrast, maintains that he was spontaneously offered the loan. Probably, like quantum theory, the truth shifts depending on where the observers are standing and what they are looking for. It is perfectly easy to imagine a conversation between two people, one wealthy, one in need of extra money, in which the borrower remembers the lender broaching the subject and vice versa. Is the person who drops the hint the instigator, or the one who picks it up?

So worried is Number 10 about this raking over of old feuds that Tony Blair has dispatched his very own Penthesilea, Anji Hunter, Queen of his private office Amazons, to try and persuade Mr Robinson that a period of silence would be in everyone's interests. I doubt that even the fiercely capable Ms Hunter will be able to wring a peace treaty from Mr Robinson, who feels that he was used by New Labour as a golden calf and then ruthlessly discarded when he became a PR problem.

He decanted his wealth into New Labour before it became a fashionable cause to fund, notably by rescuing the New Statesman magazine when it was a basket case. We probably do not yet know how many financial favours Mr Robinson did and for whom, but there is every chance that he intends to tell us in his forthcoming book.

Rich men in politics are a far more highly combustible commodity than their beneficiaries realise. There is no such thing as no-strings generosity in public life, however much convention dictates that these untidy encumbrances be tucked out of view to preserve the appearance of effortless good-will and common understanding. What benefactors crave most is recognition as more than a walking cash machine into which senior colleagues can stick their demands once in a while. That is why Mr Mandelson's failure to invite Mr Robinson to his house-warming cut so deep. "I bloody paid for it," he is reported to have commented on hearing that Peter's enthronement in Notting Hill had proceeded without him.

Those steeped in hostility to Mr Mandelson will be quick to conclude that this act of ingratitude is one more proof of the fallen minister's fabled arrogance. Far more likely is that he was wary of drawing attention to his link with Mr Robinson at a time when the infighting between his own camp and the Chancellor's court was intense and therefore decided to leave Geoffrey off the guest list. "The fatal error," as Hercule Poirot would have remarked.

Centuries of burnt fingers have not helped politicians learn the high price of other people's money. Ever since Croesus demanded the leadership of Caesar's army in the east in return for bankrolling the Roman Empire's military machine - only to lead it to defeat and get himself killed by the Persians in the process - bankrollers have striven for office as a quid pro quo for supplying cash to fund the ambitions of leaders. Mr Robinson's job as paymaster general was a mere supporting role, but it was overwhelmingly important to him. As he sees it, Mr Blair stood by other awkward customers in Government: Robin Cook over his marital difficulties, Mr Mandelson by making clear that his absence from the front bench has a statute of limitation upon it. Why should not the Prime Minister stand by him too?

Like a lot of people who have made serious money, Mr Robinson probably feels that his contribution is not valued highly enough by other elites. The rest of us might marvel at the fact that someone with two Lutyens houses, an Italian villa, a Mayfair penthouse suite and a splendid modern art collection wanted to spend most of his time cooped up in among the brown and beige of the Treasury, the least appealing office in Whitehall. But a role in Government was a form of fulfilment business and wealth alone could not deliver. Stripped of this role, Mr Robinson sees no reason to maintain the vow of silence. The magic circle has been broken.

The Tory party faces a similar problem in different form with its troublesome treasurer Michael Ashcroft. Mr Ashcroft was dead set on having the post and saw it as fair recompense for his generous donation. Conservative worthies had their doubts about this appointment, but Mr Hague, anxious to improve the parlous state of party finance, overruled them. A senior member of the Hague camp drilled me last week on the tough line Mr Ashcroft is taking in his libel suit against The Times: "Michael will fight to the end to clear his name, Michael won't give in or settle out of court, etc." The intended effect was to suggest that Mr Ashcroft was an implacable man with right on his side and the means to pursue vengeance against his enemies. But one couldn't help thinking that the sheer tensile strength of Mr Ashcroft's will means that he has his own party by the vitals. What Mr Hague really needs is for Mr Ashcroft to resign the post of Treasurer while he pursues his lawsuit, thus removing the taint of unresolved scandal.

But what if Mr Ashcroft won't oblige? Mr Hague will be forced to support his continuation in office. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the businessman's affairs, no one could say that he constitutes a net benefit to the Conservative Party and its recovery chances. The Tory leader profited from Mr Ashcroft's riches, but he has acquired an unwanted liability in the process. What shall it benefit a party if its accounts are back in the black but it keeps losing elections?

Unlike his opponent, Blair is hyper-sensitive about the impact of any narrative which might lead his Government to be perceived as lax on standards on public life and prepared to deal roughly with his own side to sustain the moral high ground.

So out went Mr Robinson, fairly or not. Just as self-made politicians underrate the sensitivities of their rich friends, businessmen who enter the game tend to over-estimate how much loyalty their largesse earns them and for how long. Money creates the impression of invincibility, but it cannot protect them from the lances of opportunism. How awful, after years in the gratifying fug of flattery, to discover that you are not worth your weight in gold after all. A ruthless businessman is nowhere near as cruel as a ruthless politician.

Comments