Unconventional ex-minister set to have the last laugh on Blair

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Indy Politics

When Geoffrey Robinson watched his beloved Coventry City play Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, a smile seemed to play constantly across his generous features.

When Geoffrey Robinson watched his beloved Coventry City play Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, a smile seemed to play constantly across his generous features.

After his team won the hard-fought match, the normally reserved former paymaster general and erstwhile ally of Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, was positively euphoric.

Yet as he clasped the arm of his fellow spectator, Charlie Whelan, Mr Brown's former spin-doctor, it looked as though the reason for Mr Robinson's exceptionally good humour was not just personal but political.

With the serialisation of his book The Unconventional Minister due this week, the MP for Coventry North West is certainly looking forward to having the last laugh at Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson.

Having been assiduous in his help for Mr Blair in opposition, Mr Robinson, a man who had been a backbench MP since he was elected in 1976, was rewarded at the last election with a plum job.

But a series of controversies over his business affairs, his offshore funds, connections with the late Robert Maxwell and funding of Labour ministers in opposition meant that he became a liability for the Government. The Tories harried him relentlessly, but it was his closeness to the Chancellor, not to mention the irrepressible Mr Whelan, that ensured he hung on to his job.

Yet, despite Mr Brown's attempts to defend his colleague, by December 1998 Downing Street had begun to make noises about Mr Robinson's position being untenable.

Then came the bombshell. Newspaper reports claimed that Mr Robinson had loaned Mr Mandelson, then the secretary of state for trade and industry, some £373,000 towards the cost of his new home in Notting Hill.

Mr Mandelson, whose department had the power to investigate Mr Robinson's business affairs, was forced to resign by the Prime Minister. Along with him went the paymaster general.

The sources of the disclosures have never been revealed, but the suspicion surrounding Mr Whelan led directly to his own resignation some weeks later. Some have claimed that they knew in advance there was a "thermonuclear device" primed to go off against Mr Mandelson.

A subsequent inquiry into the affair by Sir Gordon Downey, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, took evidence from both men about the genesis of the loan and the circumstances surrounding its use.

Mr Mandelson claimed that it was Mr Robinson who offered him the loan. Mr Robinson, whose relationship with his colleague had deteriorated significantly since the loan was made in 1996, complained that he had not even been invited to the housewarming party.

Downing Street and Labour's Millbank headquarters had hoped that the question of who asked whom and precisely what in the home- loan affair was dead and buried. But this week's book could reopen the whole issue.

Now it appears that the Coventry MP is determined to set the record straight, as he saw it. It suggests that Mr Mandelson was the one who first broached the subject of his financial difficulties.

The book claims that it was at a private dinner between the two men in Robinson's flat in Grosvenor House Hotel in London that the matter was raised initially.

Mr Mandelson allegedly complained that his current flat was dingy and made him feel miserable. The millionaire businessman, who had been chief executive of Jaguar cars in his time, claims he regarded this as a cri de coeur and asked what he could do to help.

Mr Mandelson said that he would ideally like a nicer place in Notting Hill but that would be too expensive and there was nobody who could get him up the property ladder. "My interpretation of his remark was that he was looking for a loan," Mr Robinson is understood to have told friends.

Given that Mr Mandelson told the standards inquiry that he was the one who had been offered the loan, any suggestion to the contrary would prove extremely damaging.

Worse still, Mr Blair has always denied any knowledge of the loan. Any suggestion or hint otherwise would resurrect claims about his capacity to tell the truth. In the wake of the Bernie Ecclestone affair, amply dredged up by Andrew Rawnsley's book Servants of the People, Mr Blair has already faced accusations of being economical with the actuality.

Some in the Labour Party believe it was Mr Rawnsley's decision to write his book that caused Mr Robinson to put his own thoughts to paper. The Rawnsley book, seen as highly critical of Mr Brown, and possibly written with the help of Mr Mandelson, appeared to give Mr Robinson the opening he sought. "If the other side are writing books, why can't I?" he may have thought.

Downing Street has had to endure a lengthy season of political biographies and memoirs, and Mr Rawnsley's has been the most unwelcome but it is the Robinson account that is the most eagerly anticipated.

Unlike Mr Rawnsley, the former paymaster general had a ringside seat at many of the rows between Mr Blair and Mr Brown. New details of the Mandelson loan would be embarrassing, but much more devastating would be any attacks on the Prime Minister.

Any reference to the issue of the funding of Mr Blair's own private office in opposition would be the "golden nugget" that made the book worthy of its serialisation fee alone.

Ever since the idea of a Robinson book was mooted, or rather spun, in the press, Downing Street has been acutely aware of its impact.

Anji Hunter, Mr Blair's special assistant, was sent to persuade Mr Robinson to tone down, if not abandon, the controversial project.

Ms Hunter failed in her task, but some of the Prime Minister's staff were still hoping that the book would be nothing more than a dull read about the intricacies of the private finance initiative.

But, with a lucrative contract signed with a big publisher, not to mention a prominent serialisation, it seemed this weekend that The Unconventional Minister would come up with something more interesting.

It is the haunting presence of Mr Whelan, Mr Robinson's fellow football fan, that has led to many of Downing Street's worries about the book.

There is even speculation that Mr Whelan, who has already been blamed for a rash of stories about Mr Brown and Mr Blair, may have ghost-written much of the book.

Proof of the continuing feud with Mr Mandelson emerged as recently as last month's Labour Party conference. Mr Brown was furious at the Northern Ireland secretary's claim that he had been "high-handed" during the fuel protests. He was even more incandescent about a pro-euro speech by his rival earlier in the year.

Yet, as much as the loathing continues to run deep, the Chancellor's allies claim he had personally begged Mr Robinson not to go ahead with the book project. Unfortunately, Mr Brown appears to have absolutely no leverage over the millionaire scorned.

Mr Brown's friends have claimed that the "thermonuclear device" of the home-loan disclosure was only meant to wound Mr Mandelson, not remove him from office altogether.

But as the Northern Ireland Secretary discovered all too intimately, the trouble with attempts to wound is that they often end up causing a bloody mess. Mr Robinson's intention may simply be to embarrass Mr Blair.

However, with a general election less than a matter of months away and the polls in a volatile state, he may be doing more damage than he ever imagined.

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