New statesman or new conspirator?

Profile: Geoffrey Robinson is an MP, a tycoon and now a publisher. What does he want next? A Cabinet seat? Or more, asks Paul Vallely
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The Independent Online
"There goes my peerage," said Geoffrey Robinson MP when he saw the cover of the New Statesman the first issue after its redesign. It sported a Steve Bell cartoon that depicted the Royal Family as a line of prostitutes on a street corner, with Lady Di leaning into the window of a kerb-crawler. Robinson, who has not long taken over as the magazine's owner, seemed genuinely taken aback by the sight.

Anyone who knows Ian Hargreaves, quondam editor of this newspaper and now in the chair at the Statesman, would not have been surprised. Not by the cartoon. But by the fact that he had not troubled to show it to the proprietor until it was too late to change it.

So if it is not a peerage, what exactly is it that has motivated Robinson in his decision to buy the loss-making magazine? Conventional wisdom has it that he is after a seat in the Cabinet. Such were the judgements aired over the summer when he lent Tony Blair his villa in Tuscany for a family holiday.

Robinson, a former managing director of Jaguar Cars, has built up a fortune of at least pounds 30m on the side over the past decade while serving quietly - very quietly - as a Labour MP. He is just the man to give business credibility to a Labour cabinet, most likely at the Department of Trade and Industry.

But in recent weeks a more Machiavellian theory has begun to emerge - that Robinson is laying the ground for some future plot to oust Tony Blair as leader and replace him with the shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown. Already! Surely this is too far-fetched.

"He's part of Brown's positioning in the party to build up an alternative power base to create an independent claim to the leadership should the need arise," said one who is close to the heart of new Labour. "In the Parliamentary Labour Party people are signed up as Brown or Blair supporters.

"Once Brown and Blair were inseparable. Now there is an emerging tension. I wouldn't want to overstate it, but it's a potential faultline and it is getting more pronounced. Certainly some of the more factional Blairites see the New Statesman as a Brown organ."

There is no ground so fecund for conspiracy theory as a political party - particularly one that feels itself at the portals of power.

It is true that Brown's lieutenant, Ed Balls, played a significant role in the plot to secure the New Statesman as an organ for new Labour. The chance came last Christmas, when the magazine's previous bankroller, Philip Jeffrey, the socialist millionaire who founded the Fads DIY chain, withdrew funding and put it into administration. Jeffrey had intended to buy it back from the administrators, Grant Thornton, on terms that would allow him greater control. But the administrators' duty to seek the highest bidder provided the grounds for a grand plot in which the key new Labour courtiers - the spin doctor Peter Mandelson, the press strategist Alastair Campbell and Blair's chief-of-staff, Jonathan Powell, all became involved.

At its heart was Mr Balls, who became the main intermediary between the party machiavels, the magazine's staff and the man who was persuaded to stump up the asking price - pounds 125,000, plus pounds 250,000 to pay off its debts - Geoffrey Robinson.

There is no doubt that Robinson is a wheeler-dealer. He is a relaxed, affable character who does not come across like the boss of a metal-bashing company, or even an old-style Labour MP. His image is more that of a star-struck celebrity lawyer.

"His manner is diffident, almost bumbling and ineffective", said one friend, "but it belies a sharp mind. He's actually very clever. He thinks quickly, reads people and situations fast and makes swift decisions."

"Things get done around him," said another. "In conversation you think he's not concentrating on what you're saying, but the next day he'll make some incisive remark about it."

That Robinson is an achiever is beyond dispute. His wealth supports a portfolio of interests worthy of a Renaissance man: business, architecture, cars, painting, football and science. Almost certainly Labour's richest MP, he owns an eight-bedroomed Lutyens home near Godalming, Surrey, where his opera singer wife, Marie Elena Giorgio, lives, as well as his own penthouse overlooking Park Lane.

Robinson collects not just cars - which include not one but two chauffeur- driven Jags - he also collects houses. He has recently acquired another 20-bedroomed Lutyens mansion with a Gertrude Jekyll garden in Hampshire and has a flat in the Riviera and the estate in Italy.

But "politics is his first love," said one acquaintance. He is known to be a key figure in Labour's New Business Committee, established to secure new business contacts for the party. Less well-known is that he is the brains behind Labour's only new fiscal strategy - the windfall tax on the public utilities. It is Robinson who has done the backroom work for Gordon Brown which has led to the extension of the tax to British Telecom and the former British Airports Authority, and the likelihood of doubling the income from the tax to pounds 10bn.

There are now those who are wondering whether Robinson will be given the role of adding some business bottom to a Blair cabinet in the way that Harold Lever did for the government of Harold Wilson. If so, the circle will have come full turn. It was Wilson who enticed Robinson into politics. The son of a furniture manufacturer, he graduated from Clare College, Cambridge - he speaks Russian, French, German and Italian - and was studying economics and history at Yale where Wilson came across him. After serving in the Intelligence Corps during his National Service, Robinson went to work on transport in the Labour Research Department.

From there he went to the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation, the crucible of Wilson's "white heat of technology" revolution. But the reality of state planning proved sobering. Robinson, along with most of the IRC's other young corporatist planning whizzkids - who included Sir Alastair Morton (now of Euro-Tunnel), Graham Hearne (now Enterprise Oil boss) and John Gardiner (now head of the Laird Group) - left the organisation as firm advocates of market economics. "He doesn't want to see Brown and Blair make the same mistakes," one insider said.

Out in the world of industry, Robinson became financial controller of British Leyland, then managing director of Leyland Innocenti in Milan before being made chief executive of Jaguar Cars at the age of 33.

His management style was such that when he applied to be Labour candidate for Coventry North West (the constituency that contains the Jaguar and Daimler car plants) he was adopted with the backing of even the hard-line trade unionists. This was a man bringing jobs to a declining industry, who was subsequently prepared to act as unpaid chief exec of the ill-fated Meriden Motor Cycle Workers Co-operative.

But Labour never formed a government and Robinson was not comfortable in opposition. After four years as a frontbench spokesman, first on science and then on industry, he virtually dropped out of active politics.

In 1986 he began a one-man technology business, which is now worth pounds 200m as the conglomerate TransTec. Robinson specialised in aerospace customers - with contracts in Japan, Spain, Russia and South Africa. Despite a hiccup in 1994, when he was pressured to split his roles as chairman and chief executive amid concerns about the company's performance and past accounting practices, TransTec has been an unmitigated success. Since Robinson appointed a new chief executive, it has made numerous acquisitions, taking a longer- term view than most venture capitalists in the field, and built a strong order book. Last year Robinson bought another pounds 20m of shares in the firm.

His entrepreneurial flair was not universally appreciated. In 1991, the hard left in his constituency tried to deselect him on the grounds that he was an absentee MP. (He has neglected to collect a house in the constituency and stays in the local Post House when he goes up for surgeries; during one year he did not utter a single word in the Commons chamber.) They came within 1 per cent of the votes needed. Only Robinson's Jaguar background helped him to hold on; many hard-line unionists wouldn't join the Militant attempt to oust him.

For all that, Robinson continued in his ways. During the 1992-93 parliamentary session, in a table of the Commons' 20 worst attenders he came 19th. (Fortunately, Tony Blair was 20th.)

With power in prospect he has returned to the scene, but is there any real evidence that he is backing Brown?

"Geoffrey thinks that all politics is about the economy," said one friend. "He is scornful of the moral and constitutional agendas. He hates Jack Straw and his illiberal populism. So Brown's is the area to which he naturally gravitates."

There is no doubt that he is closer to Brown than to Blair. He backed Brown for the leadership when John Smith died. Brown and Brown's brother used his flat on the Riviera for a holiday last summer, and at Robinson's frequent and lavish parties Brown is more often in evidence than is the party leader.

Yet the two men do not accord completely. Robinson is strongly opposed to a European single currency. At the last Labour conference he was actively briefing people against the single currency and telling everyone that Blair was having second thoughts on Europe.

Those who really know him discount the notion that he is helping to position Brown for a future plot against Blair. "Geoffrey is not a mischief-maker. At 58 he is not a faction leader or even a king-maker - he's been out of the swim too long to have the contacts. He's more of an uncle to Gordon. He knows his own limitations."

Perhaps he knows that a seat in the Cabinet is beyond him, too. Despite his manifest intelligence and management skills, there are those who maintain that he lacks the skills in argument to be a Cabinet minister.

But owning the New Statesman gives him a different kind of leverage. It could be that he simply thinks he can make money from the magazine, having bought at rock bottom in the economic cycle and installed a lively editor. But there is almost certainly a double edge (as there is to his recent pounds 5m investment in Coventry FC: the cash is earmarked to bring on young players and Robinson gets a cut of the transfer fee if they are sold). The crunch for new Labour could come early - over public sector pay, over tax, over a European single currency. If Brown and Blair did split, the voice of the new, improved New Statesman might be potent.

The integrity of Ian Hargreaves might prove a stumbling block to a partisan proprietorial position. But then editors can always be sacked. For the time being, Geoffrey Robinson is a man to be carefully watched.