CONTINUING OUR SERIES ON THE PEOPLE JOCKEYING FOR INFLUENCE AND STATUS IN THE LATE NINETIES

THE NEW ESTABLISHMENT Day Two: The Plutocrats As Labour's success grows more likely, it has to learn to live with praise from the popular press, and its own wealthy benefactors. By Peter Popham

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"Tony Blair's face is full of optimism. He has set his targets and is unlikely to let anybody get in his way ... the position of Prime Minister is well within his grasp ..."

"Cherie has a natural appeal the fashion magazines might go for in a big way ... Above all, she has the all-important relaxed look ..."

Over the past fortnight, the Daily Express has published one photograph of John Major, two of Cherie Booth, and nine of Tony Blair. The paper's columnists, people such as Bernard Ingham and Peter Hitchens, may continue to growl and grizzle along the familiar Smith Square-approved lines (though Ingham declared in a recent column, "By common consent, Labour is no longer unelectable"); but the message of the rest of the paper could hardly be more plain: the Blairs are the faces of the future.

It is seven months since Lord Hollick merged his flagship company, MAI, with Lord Stevens's United Newspapers, in what amounted to a takeover. And although he declares himself a hands-off proprietor, primarily interested in the bottom line, he is also among the most prominent of Labour's seriously rich supporters.

With regard to Labour, he says, "My role is to be helpful and supportive in any way I can." A moody, half-page portrait of Blair, fashion shots of Cherie, cute and wholesome in cardigan and bare feet, a beaming Blair stepping out of a helicopter - all of this is helpful and supportive. Even the banner front-page headline on last Friday's paper, "Labour to dump unions", probably did Labour less harm than good in the eyes of most Express readers.

Lord Hollick, 51 (right), has been a Labour party member since his teens, and was raised to the peerage by Neil Kinnock; his other services to the Labour party include helping to set up the Institute for Public Policy Research, a think-tank that is one of New Labour's most important sources of ideas. And now, as the party's great test approaches, Lord Hollick is the type of self-made grandee on whom the party is bound to depend ever more heavily, whether it does in fact "dump unions" or not.

He is believed to contribute to the party's funds; by reiterating his enthusiastic backing for Labour only days after overseeing 85 redundancies at the Express, he helps to make supporting Labour look the natural choice of millionaires who know which way the wind is blowing; and if he perseveres in his attempt to Blairify the Express, he could prove to be far and away the party's most useful ally in the war against the Tory media.

Despite all the union-dumping, Clause 4-rewriting and City-wooing of the past two years, Plutocrats Backing Blair remains a small, select club, and new members are paraded before the press like expensive foreign signings.

The most recent, announced at the weekend, was Bob Gavron CBE, the multimillionaire printer and publisher, who owns the Folio Society and Carcanet Press and is also a director of the Royal Opera House and the Royal Ballet. He has given the party pounds 500,000. Last week the gift of Matthew Harding, wealthy insurance broker and Chelsea FC's biggest shareholder, was announced: earlier in the year he gave pounds 1m, much the largest single donation, and about one-sixth of what the party receives annually from the unions.

The Tories remain the natural bolt-hole of the rich, and those among them who go for Labour normally have strong reasons for doing something so apparently counter-intuitive. Dr Swraj Paul, for example, head of the Capara Group steel business, who with his family is worth pounds 500m, points out that his allegiance to Labour practically runs in his blood: his family were ardent supporters of Indian independence (his given name, which means "freedom", was Gandhi's campaign slogan), and when he came to live in Britain 30 years ago he was naturally drawn to the anti-Establishment party. The support of Lord Paul (he was ennobled in the recent honours list) is not blind, however: he gave money to the Tories during the Eighties, and is a friend of Baroness Thatcher. As recently as 1994, when he gave Labour pounds 54,000, he also gave pounds 5,000 to the Tories.

Some of Labour's high-profile supporters would be glad if there were a no-publicity box to tick. David Sainsbury, for example, scion of the grocery dynasty, supports Labour but prefers not to talk about it - a contrast to the eloquent Conservatism of his cousin, Sir Tim, formerly a minister in John Major's government.

Paul Hamlyn, the publishing magnate who arrived in Britain as a refugee from Hitler, has poured money into the party for years, but stays mum. And when you see the abuse that is heaped on the heads of some of Labour's wealthy, you can understand why.

Take the case of Geoffrey Robinson, for example. The MP for Coventry North West since 1976, he may, with the Open University, be one of the late Harold Wilson's most glittering legacies. Hired by the then Labour prime minister as a researcher, he was rapidly promoted to head the Industrial Reorganization Corporation, and from there went on to head Jaguar Cars and build a fortune of his own in high-tech engineering.

Robinson is Wilson's white-hot heat of the technological revolution, embodied and still glowing. In the process of making his pile, though, he neglected Westminster. Now he is back in the spotlight as the new proprietor of the New Statesman, but a Daily Mail report that Blair was planning to give him a front-line job to "improve his [ie Blair's] credibility with industry", later flatly denied by Blair's office, provoked screams of outrage from other Labour MPs. "It's going to blunt our crackdown on company fat cats if we have one on our own front bench," one of them was quoted as saying.

Geoffrey Robinson has a Lutyens mansion in Hampshire, a villa in Surrey, a flat in the Riviera and a penthouse overlooking Park Lane and the Serpentine. He certainly sounds a fattish cat.

But capitalists are like that. Labour will have to learn to love them.

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