The shy little rich boy

He's horribly wealthy, keeps his mouth shut and Labour's hair- shirt doesn't fit him.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Geoffrey Robinson, the Paymaster-General, was busy last week. In fact, if the Treasury press office is to be believed, never has a Paymaster-General, traditionally the ministerial equivalent of counting paper clips and approving cheques, been busier.

When he was not ensconced in meetings he was said to be campaigning in the Uxbridge by-election. A sceptical snort elicited the defensive response from a colleague of Mr Robinson that "Geoffrey is an excellent campaigner, you know".

By the end of the week it was obvious no meeting between the Independent on Sunday and the minister in an administration that prides itself on open government was going to take place. The coup de grace was delivered with brusque aplomb by a senior aide to Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer - Mr Robinson's boss and close friend. No profile interview with Mr Robinson would take place, said the aide, because "we know the sort of questions that will be asked".

Mr Brown and his team, it seems, are mightily sensitive about the Paymaster- General and MP for Coventry North West. Not on any political grounds. For Mr Robinson is a fully signed-up disciple to the "Blair project". Neither, judging by the limited number of interviews he has given in his long political career - he has been an MP since 1976, holding junior front- bench positions in the wilderness decade of the 1980s - is he prone to making gaffes. Few pairs of hands are safer.

BUT, and maybe this is the reason for the party's sensitivity, Mr Robinson is also fabulously rich. He is probably, with the late Harold Lever the only possible exception, the wealthiest Labour MP ever. Not only that: he is host this weekend to the Blairs. As they did last year, the first family will take their annual summer holiday in Mr Robinson's glorious villa, Mucchio, in the hills of Tuscany.

For all its hosting of glitzy, celebrity parties, this is a hair-shirt government. Nowhere is that puritanical, abstemious streak more embedded than at Mr Brown's Treasury. For years the iron chancellor and his cohorts railed against "fat cat" businessmen with their swanky salaries and luxury lifestyles. Yet, on acceding to power, one of Mr Brown's first acts was to appoint as a minister someone who owns pounds 30m worth of shares in a Midlands engineering company and has not one but two Lutyens country houses, a Mayfair penthouse, a home in Cannes and the villa in Italy.

That is not all. Mr Robinson has been given a much wider brief than that usually attached to the Paymaster-General. He has been put in charge of the Private Finance Initiative, responsible for persuading the private sector to fund public projects, and for implementing the windfall tax against the privatised utilities.

In an interview soon after taking office, Mr Robinson is said to "relish" the prospect of implementing the tax. "He knows plenty of people who are rich and run successful companies but they have never been cushioned with the guarantee of easy profits and salary bonuses," drooled Valerie Elliott in the Times. Hmmm.

In the 1996 annual report for TransTec, the engineering company he founded, Mr Robinson is the non-executive chairman and named as a member of the firm's three-strong remuneration committee. In 1996, the seven directors of TransTec were paid a total of pounds 651,000. But the company chaired by the soon-to-be Labour Paymaster-General knows how to pay its own people well: the four executive directors also shared almost as much again, an additional pounds 504,000 in performance-related bonus. Mr Robinson's company had not one, but two, executive share schemes and is listed as owning 27.45 million shares in the company. On Friday last week, TransTec shares stood at 95.5p. Mr Robinson, who, colleagues point out, put his shares in a trust immediately on becoming a minister, is sitting on a fortune.

Again, in an echo of a previous phrase, Mr Robinson did not sit on the board of one company but three: AGIE (UK) and Yamato, in addition to TransTec. And, in a pattern that now seems familiar, until he became a minister, he possessed not one but two Daimlers, chauffeur-driven, of course. Now, he has a government car, a red Ford Mondeo, and a Whitehall driver. He thought twice about accepting it but decided to take the Ford, for fear of upstaging the Chancellor. "I did not think it would be well viewed by my colleagues."

Two years ago, Mr Robinson bought the New Statesman, required reading for followers of this government as the Spectator was for those who wanted an inside track on the Tories. Circulation of the historic magazine was at an all-time low - despite the growing popularity of Tony Blair - and it had a six-figure overdraft. He saved it. Nevertheless, the impression remained that here was somone with an eye to the main chance. And, under Mr Robinson the magazine has changed, from being old Labour and critical of Mr Blair to being profoundly new Labour and broadly supportive.

That is not to suggest that Ian Hargreaves, the editor appointed to turn round the magazine, is a mouthpiece for Mr Blair or for his owner's ambitions. Far from it. Mr Robinson is thought to be hostile to the single currency, opposed to devolution and against proportional representation - all of which find favour with Mr Hargreaves and his journal.

The "thought to be" is necessary, since it is impossible to say with certainty what Mr Robinson really stands for. He is not a passionate speaker, is not noted for his frequent Commons interventions, does not write many newspaper articles, and rarely appears on television or radio. His face, unlike many of his senior colleagues, is not instantly recognisable.

For all his long years in parliament, Mr Robinson, 59, has come from virtually nowhere to the point where he is mentioned in senior Labour circles as a likely candidate for full Cabinet office in the first Blair reshuffle. The 1990 edition of Andrew Roth's Westminster companion, Parliamentary Profiles, describes Mr Robinson as "rarely heard, low-profile". In 1988-89, notes Roth, he "did not make a single speech". So, within seven years, he has vaulted from relative obscurity to become an important minister, charged with handling key planks of policy, host to the Prime Minister and owner of an influential weekly political journal.

Such high political involvement is relatively recent: he despaired for Labour during the strife-torn Kinnock era, and, said one friend, even thought of leaving politics completely. To understand Geoffrey, said the friend, it is worth remembering he is not a typical politician.

GEOFFREY ROBINSON made his name and sowed the seeds of his wealth during the Wilson years, when he was plucked from a back office at Transport House, Labour's then headquarters. After graduating in languages from Cambridge and in economics and history from Yale, in 1965 he had joined Labour's research department. From there, he was sent to the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation, the engine-room for Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology" revolution.

Whatever zeal for corporatist government he had before he went to the IRC it was soon knocked out of him. Working alongside future commercial stars such as Sir Alastair Morton, later of Eurotunnel, and trying to sort out the mess that was British Leyland made him appreciate businessmen's problems and turned him into a believer in the free market.

He became BL's finance controller and then chief executive of the state- owned Jaguar Cars. He was 33. In his diaries, Tony Benn, who was Secretary of State for Industry in 1975, wrote how the "go-ahead" Jaguar boss was frustrated in his plans for expansion. "Geoffrey is an active, energetic and sympathetic man, which is more than you can say for most of the directors in the British car industry. If only others would follow his lead," wrote Benn.

When the seat of Coventry North West fell vacant, Mr Robinson seized his chance. It was a brave decision for a young tycoon and one he probably regretted. A month after the election, Wilson had resigned. Robinson, according to a friend, believed Wilson had lacked a strategic approach. And importantly, in the light of his current role in Whitehall, Robinson felt Wilson failed to build bridges between the key characters around him.

He was denied a government post under James Callaghan and spent the next 20 years in the political wilderness as a Labour right-winger. He served his constituents and concentrated on building up his business. He was not close to Neil Kinnock or to John Smith. Around the Commons he was an obscure figure, known really for only one thing: being the richest Labour MP.

He did, though, get to know Mr Brown. Once the Shadow Chancellor's pre- eminence alongside Blair was confirmed, Mr Robinson set to work. With the rise of Blair and Brown, especially the latter, his attitude changed. He scaled down his involvement in TransTec and took an interest in high- Labour politics.

Now, he is one of the Chancellor's closest allies. His relations with Blair are excellent, and he is one of the few to be trusted by both the Blair and Brown camps. Softly spoken, he can appear almost woolly in conversation, tending to listen and act later, rather than make snap decisions. He is said to be enjoying every minute of political power. But not, it seems, the press attention that it entails.

Labour colleagues of Mr Robinson revel in tales of his wealth: how, for instance, he never has any change in his pocket smaller than a pounds 50 note. If someone is getting the coffees in, he will hand over two pounds 50 notes. Likewise, if you need a taxi home from his Mayfair apartment (replete with oriental rugs and sculptures), he will offer a pounds 50 note. A useful friend, then. But maybe not one that a hair-shirt government would wish to boast of.