Labour official: Party funds did not go to Blair

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The controversy over Geoffrey Robinson's financial backing for Labour deepened last night amid contradictory statements by the party over his donations.

The controversy over Geoffrey Robinson's financial backing for Labour deepened last night amid contradictory statements by the party over his donations.

The Tories demanded an explanation of a claim by Labour's top official that the party had never used its general fund to finance Tony Blair's office as Leader of the Opposition.

The statement, made by Margaret McDonagh, Labour's general secretary, to Lord Neill of Bladen's inquiry into political funding in 1998. It appeared to undermine the party's attempts to distance Mr Blair from Mr Robinson this week by saying he had given money to Labour rather than directly to the leader's office.

In his memoirs published this week, Mr Robinson said he had been "happy to support" Mr Blair's private office, as well as those of his predecessors John Smith and Neil Kinnock.

The Independent revealed a year ago that Mr Robinson was under pressure from Downing Street not to disclose in his book details of his £250,000 donation to Mr Blair's office. This prompted the trustees of the blind trust that handled donations to the office to issue a statement saying Mr Robinson was not a donor to it.

This week the former Treasury minister conceded his money was "probably" paid into Labour's general funds rather than into the blind trust, but insisted the donation helped to fund Mr Blair's office. In a statement on Tuesday, Labour suggested the money was passed on to the Blair office, which it said was partly funded by the party.

The Tories argued that this contradicted the Labour policy set out to the Neill inquiry and called into question the whole purpose of the blind trust, which was set up to ensure Mr Blair would not know who was giving money to his office.

In a letter to Ms McDonagh last night, David Heathcoat-Amory, the Tory spokesman on Trade and Industry, asked: "Do you confirm that Geoffrey Robinson gave money to the Labour Party, which was specifically meant for Tony Blair's private office, and which bypassed the blind trust? If so, what was the function of the blind trust, which was supposed to protect the integrity of the Labour leader's office by preventing identifiable donations?"

Mr Heathcoat-Amory said that, if Mr Robinson's money was routed via Labour, the party would have been aware of it, leaving it open to accusations of "selling political influence". Mr Robinson was made Paymaster General by Mr Blair after the 1997 general election.

But a Labour spokesman replied: "The Labour leader was funded in opposition both out of the Labour Party general fund and the Labour Leader's Office Fund, as was listed in the Register of Members' Interests."

Yesterday Mr Robinson caused further embarrassment for Mr Blair, who was branded a "coward" after the book disclosed that the Prime Minister dispatched Sir Richard Wilson, the Cabinet Secretary, to see Mr Robinson in an abortive attempt to sack him in 1998. "It was a manner of proceeding I could not accept," said Mr Robinson. "When a senior minister is to be sacked, the Prime Minister must do it."

Lord Blake, the Conservative historian, said: "I would say this is extraodinary and unprecedented. I am afraid the revelation of it will do Blair nothing but harm. It makes him look like a coward and a funk."