Robinson: a sorry mess of his making

Paymaster General's apology: How a catalogue of mistakes, mishaps and oversights led to his Commons statement
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The Independent Online
AT LAST, things seemed to be looking up for Geoffrey Robinson. Watching his team, Coventry City, win 3-0 at home to Everton on Sunday, the Paymaster General must have reflected that his troubles seemed to be over.

The threat of demotion or an unwelcome sideways move in July's reshuffle had passed by, leaving him safe in the job he had cherished after 18 years of opposition. Even more satisfyingly, a series of complaints about his failure to register business interests seemed to have ground to a halt.

One brief telephone call on Monday changed everything, though. On the other end of Mr Robinson's ministerial line was Robert Sheldon, the chairman of the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee, which investigates breaches of the rules by MPs. The minister, Mr Sheldon suggested, should appear in person to explain a failure to register a directorship of Stenbell, an administrative company that pays the salaries of some staff at the New Statesman magazine, which Mr Robinson owns.

At first Mr Robinson demurred. Surely, he argued, there was no need. The committee was already aware of the oversight and of his involvement in Stenbell. Mr Sheldon was insistent: "I think you'd better come," he said.

Within hours, Mr Robinson had written to the committee, formally requesting a meeting. On Tuesday, the MPs assembled to hear his case.

The minister was contrite. The oversight had been drawn to his attention last November and had been put right, he said. "Quite simply, it seemed to me that I had declared it and had covered it, and I had not. I apologise very sincerely to the committee for that," he said. He faced a grilling over why Stenbell was used as a vehicle to move 10 million shares in his engineering company, TransTec, into an offshore trust.

After Mr Robinson left, the mood was unforgiving. The committee unanimously approved a report recommending the minister should make a formal apology to the House of Commons. But Mr Robinson, one of Labour's long-standing business supporters, has faced embarrassments before and emerged unscathed.

His friendships with both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair should stand him in good stead.

There were few political repercussions, for instance, in 1984 when the Coventry MP was found by police asleep in the passenger seat of his car on the hard shoulder of the M6. Despite being under the influence of drink and drugs, he escaped with a fine and 10 penalty points on the grounds that he had not been driving when found.

Perhaps even more farcically, he suffered a similar bad patch in 1991 after accidentally shooting his 12-year-old son in the foot in the grounds of his Lutyens mansion in Surrey. Days later a neighbour who came round to commiserate threatened to sue after being attacked by his two great danes.

Such incidents had none of the resonance of yesterday's statement to the Commons, though. To some, it seemed that a chain of events stretching back more than a decade had entered its final stages.

The seeds can be traced back to a day in July 1987, when the former chief executive of Jaguar agreed to work for Robert Maxwell alongside his day job as an MP.

After a distinguished academic career at a south London grammar school, Cambridge and Yale, it seemed at the time Mr Robinson could do no wrong. While studying history and economics at Yale, he had met Harold Wilson and in 1968 went to a job at the then-powerful Transport House. From there, he found his way to the top job at British Leyland's Innocenti factory in Italy and back to Britain to head Jaguar.

In the meantime, Mr Robinson had struck up a friendship with Joska Bourgeois, a Belgian businesswoman whose bequest to him on her death was to be central to a Commons inquiry into why his money was held offshore. But it was in the Eighties and early Nineties that the business interests which were to lead to his censure this week were accumulated.

In 1987 Mr Robinson, who had become an MP in 1976 and who had started a technology business called Transfer Technology in the early Eighties, agreed to become a director of Robert Maxwell's Central and Sheerwood company. A year later he joined the board of Hollis Industries, a Maxwell engineering firm. The most serious charge raised against him in respect of his relationship with Maxwell - that he took a payment of pounds 200,000 from Hollis without declaring the interest - was dismissed by the parliamentary watchdog.

The committee reported in July this year that Mr Robinson should have registered a directorship of Agie UK. It also found that he should have registered his directorship of Transfer Technology, now known as TransTec after merging with Central and Sheerwood in 1991.

`My Deep


November 1947. Hugh Dalton, Labour Chancellor, offered "deep apologies" to the House after revealing to a lobby correspondent the contents of the Budget. He resigned the same day.

June 1963. John Profumo expressed "deep remorse" that he had lied to the House about his relationship with the prostitute Christine Keeler, who had been sleeping with Eugene Ivanov, naval attache at the Soviet embassy. Profumo resigned as Minister of War.

December 1996. Nicholas Soames, Armed Forces minister, apologised after misinforming MPs over extent to which troops were exposed to organophosphates during the Gulf War.

February 1997. Environment minister Michael Meacher apologised after showing a consultation paper on the right to roam to Country Landowners Association and the Moorlands Association before MPs saw it. Andrew Mullins