Robinson anger at 'punishment of the innocent'

Former Paymaster General's book may seek revenge over Mandelson's return to Cabinet after just 10 months
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Indy Politics

When Peter Mandelson resigned from the Cabinet, Tony Blair told him in a letter: "In the future, you will achieve much, much more with us." It was the clearest possible hint that the Prime Minister would call him back once he had served his penance over his £373,000 personal loan from Geoffrey Robinson.

When Peter Mandelson resigned from the Cabinet, Tony Blair told him in a letter: "In the future, you will achieve much, much more with us." It was the clearest possible hint that the Prime Minister would call him back once he had served his penance over his £373,000 personal loan from Geoffrey Robinson.

Mr Blair's letter to Mr Robinson, who quit as Paymaster General on the same day, held out no such prospect of a return to the Government.

When Mr Mandelson was restored to the Cabinet last week after just 10 months, some ministers wondered if Mr Robinson would seek revenge on Mr Blair in his forthcoming book about his time as a minister.

Their worst fears were realised yesterday when The Independent revealed that Mr Robinson was under pressure from Downing Street not to make damaging claims about one of the Prime Minister's closest allies asking him to donate money to the blind trust that helped to finance Mr Blair's private office as Leader of the Opposition before the 1997 election.

A friend of Mr Robinson said yesterday: "He was very upset that Mandelson returned so quickly. He felt he was the innocent party in the loan affair and he is still being punished while Mandelson has been forgiven. He feels that some people in the party are treating him as a pariah."

Mr Robinson's book, The Unconventional Minister , is to be published by Penguin in the new year. Friends claim he has enough knowledge of the Blair inner circle to embarrass him, senior members of his staff and Mr Mandelson - if he decides to do so.

It is the Prime Minister himself who probably has the most to lose. His "whiter than white" image has already been tarnished by the Bernie Ecclestone affair. The Formula One boss returned a £1m donation to Labour after it was revealed he successfully lobbied Mr Blair for a change in the Government's stance on banning tobacco sponsorship of motor racing.

Revelations about who funded his private office would inflict further damage. Labour successfully exploited "Tory sleaze" in the run-up to the 1997 election and Mr Blair has since been anxious to ensure the voters do not come to regard the Labour Government as just as unprincipled as its predecessor.

Some Labour figures regard the Blair blind trust as a ticking time bomb. Its purpose was that Mr Blair would not know who gave money to it, so they could not get any favours in return.

But one Labour MP admitted yesterday: "There have always been doubts about how 'blind' it really was."

If Mr Robinson goes ahead with his plan to "name names" over who asked him for money, it would call into the question the repeated denials that Mr Blair's aides had any knowledge of the donors. Yesterday Alastair Campbell, the Downing Street press secretary, insisted that neither he nor his colleagues knew anything about the identity of the donors.

Labour insiders believe Mr Blair is now Mr Robinson's main target because it was, after all, the Prime Minister's decision to recall Mr Mandelson to the Cabinet.

Mr Robinson is also convinced that Downing Street could have done more to quell the damaging spate of press reports about his business affairs, which made him a liability as a minister.

But Mr Robinson might be tempted to try to embarrass Mr Mandelson. Friends have repeatedly claimed he possesses a "thermo-nuclear device" that could wreck Mr Mandelson's career for a second time. But Mr Mandelson's allies are relaxed, and puzzled about what the information could be.

Mr Robinson was furious that, despite his huge loan, he was not even invited to the house-warming party Mr Mandelson held at his Notting Hill house. "I bloody paid for it," Mr Robinson told Treasury colleagues.

The book is expected to claim that Mr Mandelson asked for the loan. But friends of the Northern Ireland Secretary are confident they can refute this allegation.

They point to a letter Mr Robinson sent to the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee when it investigated complaints about Mr Mandelson over the loan.

Mr Robinson told the committee the two men met at his flat in the Grosvenor House Hotel in May 1996. "Over dinner, Mr Mandelson, who is a very long-standing friend, mentioned that he was looking to buy a better property. I offered to help if help was needed. Mr Mandelson noted that with thanks."

In theory, Mr Robinson could embarrass Gordon Brown by revealing new details of his feud with Mr Mandelson after he backed Mr Blair as the modernisers' candidate in the 1994 Labour leadership election.

Mr Robinson was also privy to the tension between Mr Blair and Mr Brown since the 1997 election, notably over an authorised biography of the Chancellor revealing his continuing bitterness at not becoming party leader.

But Mr Robinson, who was one of Mr Brown's closest allies and still a close friend, is thought unlikely to vent his ire on the Chancellor.

He is said to have completed two-thirds of book and some senior Labour figures are convinced he is still agonising over whether to make damaging revelations.

"He is a Jekyll and Hyde figure," one said. "Sometimes he tells people there is nothing to worry about in the book.

"But he is very upset about what has happened and he wants to set the record straight."

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