Troubles take toll on 'missing minister'

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The Independent Online
THE MOOD was convivial as Geoffrey Robinson tucked into a hearty full English breakfast with business leaders yesterday. But a rueful note crept into the Paymaster-General's voice when the questions started.

Where would he advise a youngster to make a career - business or politics? "Business," the minister replied. "Particularly in the light of the last year."

Listening to the entrepreneur Alan Sugar's suggestions on how young people could follow in his footsteps, Mr Robinson might have been forgiven for wondering why he went into politics. The last year has not been an easy one for the Paymaster- General, to put it mildly. First he was criticised for his interest in a pounds 12m offshore trust, then for not registering directorships and then again for his links with the disgraced tycoon Robert Maxwell.

Opposition MPs claimed Jack Cunningham, the Cabinet enforcer, seemed reluctant to give unqualified support to his fellow minister when he appeared before a Commons committee yesterday.

Mr Cunningham was pressed hard by members of the Public Administration Committee before giving Mr Robinson his backing.

"Friends" have begun to hint that the Paymaster- General is ready to throw in the towel. Unnamed fellow ministers told newspapers at the weekend that he would cite health problems as his reason for resignation. Mr Robinson went into hospital last summer for an abdominal operation, which was said at the time to be routine. Yesterday rumours were circulating at Westminster that the minister's illness might be more serious than had been suggested.

There were also claims that Mr Robinson's performance had been harmed by bad publicity. One source said Treasury officials had been unhappy about the way the minister handled the launch of new Individual Savings Accounts, which was accompanied by criticism of a pounds 50,000 limit on the accounts.

"He was told to extract the digit and get on with it in July last year. But months later it was still in kit form. He had been very distracted by all this fuss," the source said.

The Conservatives have dubbed Mr Robinson "The Missing Minister," detailing six Treasury events in the House of Commons since October in which he has never spoken. On the one occasion on which he spoke, on 5 November, he answered just one question on productivity.

The opposition party says Mr Robinson did not even appear on the front bench for a debate on Individual Savings Accounts regulations on 10 November. By contrast, his Treasury colleague Patricia Hewitt appeared four times in 24 hours, in the debate on Individual Savings Accounts, a standing committee on the European Union budget, a debate on taxation in the road haulage industry and an order on insurance and contracting-out.

Last night the shadow chancellor, Francis Maude, tabled a parliamentary question asking for details of Mr Robinson's recent public engagements.

A Treasury spokeswoman said that although he had not made any speeches in the past week, neither had the Financial Secretary, Dawn Primarolo.

Last Monday Mr Robinson visited Cambridge to talk about productivity and returned to his office for meetings. On Tuesday he appeared in the House of Commons for the Queen's Speech debate on the economy but did not speak.

On Wednesday he was at the Treasury and on Thursday he judged a school painting competition in Coventry. On Friday too he was in his constituency.

On Monday of this week Mr Robinson was back in Cambridge for another meeting on productivity, accompanied by Mr Sugar. However, journalists' inquiries were not welcomed. Jenny Chapman of the Cambridge Evening News said: "I was going to ask whether he was feeling better. But as soon as I started to introduce the topic they said I couldn't ask him any questions."