Here's a tricky question: why did Mandy resign?

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The Independent Online
IT IS TOO early to say whether we are in for an outbreak of Old Labourism under the auspices of Comrades Prescott and Brown. But by the middle of the new year there will, I am confident, be only a handful of political obsessives able to give a more or less coherent account of why Mr Peter Mandelson resigned. This is the time of year when the papers are full of quizzes, as if their readers had nothing better to do with their time than sit down and try to answer daft questions. I see no harm in adding to the number; though here the questions do have some point.

Question 1: why did Cecil Parkinson have to resign? The popular answer would be that it was because he had an affair with and a child by his secretary. Wrong: for both the affair and the child were known about weeks before his resignation in 1983. It occurred at the climax of the Conservative conference, where he had made a successful speech paying generous tribute to his wife, who was present.

His former secretary, Miss Sara Keays, could stand it no longer. She (or, rather, her father) summoned the gentlemen of the Times - a a motley collection who, under the leadership of Mr Charles Wilson, sped westwards down the motorway to report Miss Keays's account. The new elements in the case were that the relationship had been lengthy and, more important, that Lord Parkinson had promised to marry Miss Keays. It may be concluded that he had to resign for refusing to leave his wife and marry his mistress. Most important of all, these charges were made in the Times on the final morning of the Tory conference.

Question 2: why did David Mellor have to resign? Most people would reply that it was because he had an affair with an actress that got into the papers. Mr Mellor was pictured in the Chelsea kit which - in a stroke of imaginative mendacity - the actress's publicist claimed he wore in the course of what the paper called "sex romps".

Wrong again: Mr Mellor had to go because the leaders of the 1922 Committee told Mr John Major he had to. This followed the revelation that Mr Mellor had accepted a free holiday from a lady who was connected with the PLO. It may be, however, that this stated reason was what the Iron Curtain countries used to call a pretext. Mr Mellor had simply become an embarrassment. In this process the cheap press (followed, as usual, a day later by the broadsheets) played the preponderant part, as had the Times nine years previously.

Question 3: why did Peter Mandelson have to resign? It is too soon after the event for any erroneous consensus to have formed. Error is none the less abundant. Mr Mandelson maintains that he did nothing wrong in accepting the large loan from Mr Geoffrey Robinson to part-finance the purchase of his new house but that he should have regularised - at least, tried to regularise - his position thereafter through disclosure. Mr Tony Blair, on the other hand, believes that Mr Mandelson did do wrong in accepting the loan. Or, if he did not do wrong in the sense that the action was appropriate for the confessional, he nevertheless acted imprudently. He ought not to have done what he did. But, having done so, he ought to have made appropriate disclosures.

At this point Mr Blair and Mr Mandelson disagree with each other and contradict themselves. Thus: disclosure should have been made to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the Cabinet Secretary or the permanent secretary of Mr Mandelson's department: to one, some or all of them. It should have been when Mr Mandelson became Minister without Portfolio or President of the Board of Trade or when the board started to take an interest in Mr Robinson's affairs.

These are not questions of a kind Mr Blair likes asking, still less answering. He deals in a different currency. Let us call it the "blairo". Its coinage includes: life goes on; tomorrow's a new day; all that's history; there you go. It can only be a matter of time before he tells us that it's no big deal. This is the Blairite line that has been running since Mr Mandelson's resignation on Wednesday 23 December. On the Tuesday it was different, another story told. Mr Mandelson toured the studios to say that he had done nothing wrong or even imprudent and that any subsequent impropriety had been eliminated by some mystical insulation of him from any departmental investigation into Mr Robinson's financial affairs. Mr Blair supported him firmly through Mr Alastair Campbell.

Nothing new occurred - there was no new element in the case - between the Guardian's and the Mirror's separate revelation and Mr Mandelson's resignation. Mr Blair, Mr Mandelson and Mr Campbell must have concluded that the original line of "what, me, guv?" simply would not wash.

It has been suggested that the new element, what in these affairs is called the smoking gun, was Mr Mandelson's advance of pounds 150,000 from the Britannia Building Society. It was hazarded that Mr Mandelson had falsified his application to the society by not including details of the loan from Mr Robinson. The relevant section of the Britannia form included two questions: first, whether he proposed to borrow any additional money on the security of the property to assist in the purchase; second, whether he had any other loan agreement and, if so, the amount outstanding and the monthly repayments.

We know that Mr Mandelson was not repaying Mr Robinson on any regular basis. I have also learnt (though I have not seen the agreement drawn up by the solicitor Mr Stephen Wegg-Prosser) that the loan was not secured on the property. What the agreement provided for was that in the event of Mr Mandelson's death, corporeal rather than political, a charge on the property should be registered. A "charge" is what the lawyers call a right to claim against property. But there could be no question of Mr Robinson's claims taking precedence over those of the Britannia. Mr Robinson's charge came into operation only on Mr Mandelson's death. And it was the Britannia rather than Mr Robinson that was the mortgagee. The building society owns the house until Mr Mandelson pays off the mortgage. Arrangements such as Mr Mandelson entered into with Mr Robinson are commonplace between parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, uncles or aunts and nephews or nieces. Though less common, they are not unusual between friends. There is nothing remotely improper about them.

In 1996 Mr Mandelson did not know that he and Mr Robinson would be in the next government. In May 1997, when they were both ministers, he should have taken steps, not to declare the loan, but to pay it off by transferring the debt to a building society, a bank or (what would have proved cheapest) another rich individual. This solution would have meant that Mr Mandelson's monthly outgoings would have increased substantially, perhaps impossibly.

Still, that is no reason why he should not have acquired a nice house in Notting Hill without being accused of corruption, adventurism or social climbing. A freelance journalist, I have quite a nice house too, in Islington. No one accuses me of being a social climber on that account. At least I hope not.