Robinson's affairs in spotlight again

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The Independent Online
By Fran Abrams and Gary Finn

THE REVELATION that Geoffrey Robinson bankrolled a fellow minister to help buy a house is the latest in an unrelenting stream of claim and counter-claim about the Paymaster-General's tangled financial affairs.

To date, Mr Robinson - bolstered by support from the Chancellor, Gordon Brown - has had the backing of Tony Blair but this latest embarrassment to a government that sold itself to the electorate as "sleaze-free" is sure to raise serious questions over Mr Robinson's continued occupation of his post at the Treasury.

Mr Robinson, a multi-millionaire, was little known outside Westminster - even though he had been an MP since 1976 - until the Prime Minister appointed him Paymaster-General after the last election.

From that moment, Mr Robinson's name has been in the headlines: hardly ever over his ministerial achievements, but invariably over business deals, offshore trusts and what the Tories called his "tangled web" of commercial interests. Although rumours had been circulating for some time that Mr Mandelson had received help from a wealthy benefactor in buying his Notting Hill house, no link with Mr Robinson had previously been suspected.

Last night's statement that the Paymaster-General, whose business interests have earned him more that pounds 30m, lent Mr Mandelson more than pounds 250,000 will increase pressure on both men.

Conservatives have called on Mr Mandelson to step aside from business decisions on mergers involving both British Airways and BSkyB, both of which have given money to the Millennium Dome, Mr Mandelson's "pet project".

The statement will fuel new claims that Mr Mandelson should step aside from investigations within the Department of Trade and Industry.

Recently it was revealed that the department could be investigating possible breaches of company law by firms associated with Mr Robinson.

The Tories say there were irregularities in the accounts of companies owned by the media tycoon Robert Maxwell. A letter to them from the DTI suggested inquiries into the issue could be going on.

Although Mr Mandelson had denied any conflict, new questions could be raised over whether he should deal with issues relating to Mr Robinson.

It suggests closeness in the relationship between them which was not previously known, although Mr Robinson has given substantial sums to the Labour Party. His name was included in a list of donors who gave more than pounds 5,000 last year.

The embarrassment will be deepened by the fact that Mr Robinson is under pressure to resign after the discovery that he failed to disclose business interests. Last month, he was forced to apologise to the House of Commons for not registering his directorship of Stenbell, an administrative firm. Stenbell paid the salaries of staff on the New Statesman magazine which Mr Robinson owns.

However, it is Mr Robinson's links with Robert Maxwell which will be highlighted following last night's statement.

A long-running DTI investigation into Mr Maxwell's flotation of Mirror Group Newspapers is still going on and although it is not thought Mr Robinson will be questioned, he did have business links with Mr Maxwell's son Kevin, who is central to the inquiry.

Mr Robinson's cosy relationship with the Blairs - they have used his Tuscany villa for their summer holidays - has been heavyweight support in the past, but last summer they holidayed elsewhere.