Robinson: minister of embarrassing moments

He had money, connections and business flair - but political career of ex-Jaguar chief backfired
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Indy Politics

The title of Geoffrey Robinson's book, The Unconventional Minister , reveals something of how this former bright star of new Labour saw his brief 20-month spell in office.

The title of Geoffrey Robinson's book, The Unconventional Minister , reveals something of how this former bright star of new Labour saw his brief 20-month spell in office.

Others had different names for him. "Maxwell's Paymaster", a reference to the businessman's links with the disgraced media tycoon, was one phrase coined by the opposition. "The Missing Minister", referring to a series of Commons debates in which he failed to speak, was another.

A certain aura of mystery and even glamour had surrounded the former Jaguar executive before he became Paymaster General in May 1997. He was known to be one of Labour's richest MPs and a major donor to the party. The Blairs had holidayed at his Italian villa in 1996 and were to do so again in 1997.

But soon after the election things began to go wrong. Now relations have soured to such an extent that Mr Robinson is under pressure from Downing Street to water down damaging revelations about how he funded Mr Blair before the general election.

The MP was first elected to parliament in 1976, but did not make a big impact on Westminster during his first 21 years there. Although he had acted as Labour frontbench spokesman on science, trade and regional affairs during the 1980s, he spent much of his time building a business empire. With spells as chief executive of Jaguar and as managing director of Leyland Innocenti behind him, the Cambridge graduate seemed to know how to make money. By 1997 he was the proud owner of a £20m stake in the engineering firm he built, TransTec, as well as a slice of Coventry City football club and New Statesman magazine. He had two mansions in the UK and an estate in Tuscany.

Mr Robinson was an ally of Gordon Brown and seemed a natural for a Treasury job. He was admired by both the Chancellor and the Prime Minister for his business acumen and his ability to bang heads together, and his first few months passed without major incident. Robinson, Gordon Brown and Brown's adviser, Charlie Whelan, shared a passion for football and spent evenings together in Robinson's penthouse at London's Grosvenor House hotel.

In late 1997, though, the first cracks began to appear. Newspapers revealed that Mr Robinson had not listed his beneficial interest in a Guernsey-based offshore trust in the Register of Members Interests.

Although he received only the mildest of rebukes from the then parliamentary watchdog Sir Gordon Downey, the disclosure placed the minister in the public eye. The media spotlight fell on him and his opera-singer wife Marie Elena, and on Joska Bourgeois, the Belgian businesswoman whose multi-million pound bequest to Mr Robinson had been placed in his offshore trust.

Soon attention was being drawn to other aspects of the minister's background. There was another complaint to Sir Gordon in the spring of 1998 about his failure to register directorships of companies linked to Robert Maxwell, with whom he had struck up a business relationship in 1987. But the commissioner dismissed the most serious claim -- that Mr Robinson took £200,000 from one of Mr Maxwell's companies without declaring it -- and no further action was taken.

Just after that decision came the July reshuffle of 1998 and a flurry of rumours that Mr Robinson, fast becoming an embarrassment, was about to be moved. But although the Blairs chose to holiday elsewhere, he survived the ministerial changes and seemed to be re-establishing himself in government.

The series of events which followed that autumn were swift and brutal.

In November Sir Gordon and the Parliamentary Committee on Standards and Privileges finally lost patience and ordered Mr Robinson to apologise to MPs for failing to register Stenbell, an administrative company which paid some New Statesman salaries. His statement to Parliament was notable mainly for its brevity, taking less than a minute to deliver.

Just days later it emerged that the Department of Trade and Industry was investigating a number of possible breaches of company law by firms with which Mr Robinson was involved.

Again, the rumours that he was about to resign began to circulate.

Much worse was to follow. Just before Christmas it emerged that Mr Robinson had lent Peter Mandelson £373,000 to buy a Notting Hill house, and within two days both ministers had resigned. Mr Whelan, who continued to deny rumours that he might have been involved in a leak about the loan, went soon afterwards.

While Mr Mandelson has now won political reinstatement with a job as Northern Ireland Secretary, Mr Robinson has devoted much of his time to writing his version of these events -- the book which is now causing so much anxiety in Downing Street.

In the weeks that follow publication, there will still be little time for relaxation. In addition to his constituency duties Mr Robinson is struggling to save TransTec, whose share price has plummeted 85 per cent since reaching a high point of 120p in 1996. From a holding of £20m in 1997, the former minister's shares are now worth £5.5m and he is facing meetings with bankers over a breach of covenant over its £66m borrowings.