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Gary Younge
Geoffrey Robinson defends himself

Robinson sold it for serialisation to the newspaper most hostile to the Labour party, the Daily Mail , which splashed his story. The rest of the press followed suit. The upshot was that the cabinet duly appeared as a sleazy, bickering, money-grabbing bunch of prima donnas. This coverage, says Robinson, will help not only the prime minister and Mandelson, but contribute to the government's stability and improve its standing in the eyes of the public. Bridges had to be built, so the Labour MP and former minister thought he would knock some down.

"There may be an initial reaction that will say: 'We could have done without that,' " says Robinson. "But I think the more mature reflection will be: 'Yes, there was a very important point Geoffrey was trying to make there, and I think we should tackle it.' "

If this sounds disingenuous it is because it is. It seems as though Robinson, the 62-year-old former paymaster general whose £373,000 loan to Mandelson forced both of them to resign in December 1998, just cannot help it. Every time he has opened his mouth this week in order to sound sincere, something ludicrously insincere pops out. If he says he has "nothing but the greatest respect for Peter Mandelson" you know he is about to trash him. When he writes: "The public hates to see politicians squabbling and punishes divided governments," you know he is about to squabble in a way that will divide the government.

He says he has not been surprised at the anti-Labour reception the book has got, but will be surprised if Labour does not benefit. "It was never intended to be a political version of a kiss and tell," he says. "The serious points I've concentrated on only after considerable and careful thought. I wanted it to be constructive, I wanted it to contribute to making the government more effective and I believe that over time it will have that impact."

The serious and constructive points revealed in the Mail's serialisation include the following: Robinson was "miffed" that he had not been invited to Mandelson's housewarming party Mandelson, not him, raised the issue of a loan for his house in Notting Hill at a dinner party and Mandelson "remains a destabilising influence between the prime minister and his chancellor". Now Mandelson is back in government, as a minister, while Robinson remains an outcast.

To call this revenge would be to make far too great a claim for it. By his own admission he has far more damaging material in the way of personal letters, that he says he will not release. So this is pique at its pettiest. The politics of the playground, only with far bigger stakes. It is an attempt at political assassination by biography which may well backfire. For it bears the hallmarks of the injured van ity of an insider who is now out the conflicted allegiances of a man who has status but craves respect the disingenuousness of a multimillionaire who thinks money makes no difference. If this is serious, you wonder what he would call trivial if it is constructive, you wonder what he would call damaging.

It is a contradiction inherent in the very project he himself embarked on - to settle a score in print without appearing bitter in person. "The two main aims of what I wanted to achieve are first to counteract the impression of me that I was the sort of person who would use money to promote his own career, curry influence even to obtain a job, which seemed to be a certain element of this from the press attacks that came into this equation. I hope people can see a different person from the one they might have imagined. The second, after considerable reflecton, to raise the issue of Mandelson's role in government. From the beginning I realised how talented he is. But he must stop briefing against colleagues."

The Park Room, at the Grosvenor House hotel, is an unlikely setting for the outpourings of a victim. Its windows look straight out on to Hyde Park, the furniture is plush and a cup of tea costs more than £4. Upstairs single rooms go from £267 a night. This is where Geoffrey Robinson stays when he is in London. From the eighth floor, with a glorious view of Park Lane, he sits like a benevolent Master of the Universe - sipping champagne while pontificating on the plight of the poor. It is here that he used to hold "tax and pasta parties" with Gordon Brown and his advisers, Charlie Whelan and Ed Balls, while elaborating Labour's economic strategy for the 1997 election.

Robinson arrives with a limp he incurred in the gym. His friendliness often threatens to break out into charm but is kept in check by his lack of candour. Just when he appears affable, a straight question: "What should Blair do if Mandelson fails to become a team player?" meets an evasive answer: "I don't want to get into that" and the bonhomie evaporates. Despite many accounts to the contrary, he maintains that Blair did not ask him to sell the New Statesman to Robert Harris and that nobody from Blair's team asked him not to publish his book.

His penthouse is just one of many homes. Ask him how many and he will not, or cannot, give a straight answer. "It depends how you count them I suppose. We have a little hamlet in Italy which has several buildings on it and a house here in the country. Those are our main two residences," he says. And the one in Cannes? "Yes, we do have one flat in Cannes." So there is the Orchards, the Lutyens mansion in Godalming, Surrey the Tuscan villa and the bolthole on the Riviera that slipped his mind. The one place he does not have a home is in his own constituency of Coventry North West.

Robinson came by this wealth honestly, if, at times, mysteriously. While running British Leyland's Italian car division in Milan he befriended Joska Bourgeois, a wealthy, flamboyant woman who held the Belgian Jaguar franchise. He married a Maltese-born opera singer, Marie Elena, and would later become the chief executive of Jaguar before going on to run his own business. His close relationship with Bourgeois continued. She lent him £5,000 to start a small company called Transfer Technology, later renamed Transtech. By the time he became a treasury minister it was worth pounds 30m. When Bourgeois died in 1994, she left him pounds 9m and had already set up an offshore trust fund for his family in Guernsey called Orion. While there is no shortage of rumours about the reson for her generosity, nobody knows for sure and Robinson will not say.

His wealth left him well connected. He shares a health club with Gordon Brown and Michael Barrymore, and shared a lawyer and a business with the late media tycoon, Robert Maxwell. In 1994, he acquired the New Statesman magazine. Add this to his political career and you have a heady mix. A man who cannot possibly locate the blurry line where financial influence stops and political influence begins because he lives his life on both sides at once. He twice loaned the Blair family his home in Tuscany for their summer holidays, gave a huge personal loan to Mandelson and contributed generously to the offices of both Brown and Blair, as well as former Labour leaders Neil Kinnock and John Smith.

His generosity has left all three points of the troubled triangle of intrigue in government in his debt. It is a position that makes him simultaneously powerful and vulnerable, since it leaves a constant question mark over his access to power. Robinson, though, is one of the few people who sees no conflict of interest in dishing out huge sums of money to his boss and colleagues. "If what you're saying is that most people would expect some quid pro quo, preferment, being courted or an honour, then all I can tell you is that that's not the way I operate. Everyone I have helped over the years will tell you that Geoffrey does not seek any thing in return for myself or my business or my family."

A businessman who expects no return on his investment. Since he says it is so and there is no way to disprove it, then let it be so. It does not get rid of the question mark. For how would we know that those to whom he has done good turns say what they say because it is true and not because he has given them money, and they do not wish to appear ungrateful by portraying him in a bad light?

When pushed, he will concede what most adults take for granted. When substantial sums of money change hands between friends, the friendship itself changes. "I suppose that is bound to be true to some extent. The important thing is the extent of the extent. With me, I never refer to any kindness I've done. I certainly don't expect anything back. I just make it clear it was something I was able to do and that's that. That's the end of it."

The trouble is that it is not the end of it. It is only the beginning. If ever there is an example of how wealth affects friendships then Robinson is it. Were he not in the position to lend the money to Mandelson - or be asked for it - depending on whom you believe, he would still be in government. If New Labour learns something from his experiences, the lesson has been lost on Robinson. He still insists that, if he had his time over, he would still lend Mandelson the money. "I don't regret it all. He made a good profit on the house, so I don't suppose he does either. When we did it, it was a perfectly acceptable thing to do. Where it went wrong is that he should have declared it when he was a minister or arranged to refinance it, which I'm sure he could have done."

In the absence of a job or public sympathy, it is down to Robinson to absolve himself. Quite where he gets this confidence from is not clear. He was born in Sheffield in 1938 and raised in Balham, south London, to working-class parents. His mother worked at home his father - a man with taut bootstraps and entrepreneurial flair -started in a furniture shop and ended up mortgaging the family house so he could buy a furniture factory. "Politics weren't big in the family but we were definitely Labour supporting. By background we were working class - there were no books at home, we weren't encouraged to read but play football in the winter and cricket in the summer. I was the first of the family to go to university."

Robinson won a scholarship to a grant-maintained school, Emmanuel College. His self-assurance was not diminished by mixing with children from more cultivated backgrounds. "We were working class culturally but by that time, my father's work was going well and we were comparatively well off. So we had a sense of being better off materially than those living close to us."

From there, he went to Cambridge to study modern languages, and gained another scholarship to Yale. "I met Harold Wilson and he encouraged me to come back to the Labour party so I did." "The big captivating force for me was Kennedy," he says. "I hadn't been active in politics at Cambridge but I got very active in the Yale in Mississippi campaign." This was in 1963, one of the most dangerous times in the history of the south's most redneck state. A year later, during the Mississippi Freedom Summer, three young men were murdered in cold blood, striking terror in the hearts of civil rights workers and providing the storyline for the film Mississippi Burning. A strange place and a strange time to cut your political teeth. "Well, some of my friends were involved in it and while I had not been politically active I had always been politically and socially aware."

But his political career has been patchy. When he came back to Britain he joined the Labour party and soon started working for it as a researcher. In 1976, he was elected as Labour MP for Coventry North West and earned a sufficiently grand reputation among the Bennite left that the late Eric Heffer suggested he should become head of the National Enterprise Board. By the early 80s, he had fallen out with the left and rose through the ranks as a spokesman on science, regional affairs and then trade and industry.

But as his wealth in Transtech grew, he lost interest in politics. In 1986, he stood down as a Labour party industry spokesman. "Nobody was taking us seriously," he says. "I couldn't operate with the people I knew from industry against the background of the policies that we were going to fight the 1987 election on." In 1988 and 1989, he made no speeches in the House at all. In 1989 he came close to being deselected by his local party - hanging on with just 51% of the vote.

Given his low profile, his rehabilitation within the party during the 90s was quite miraculous. Until the mid 90s, he was listed by Labour whips as being one of the two most difficult MPs to find to vote against the Tories. But by the end of 1996 he was back as the acceptable face of New Labour by 1997 he was on the front bench.

It is then that the various strands of his past, that had previously been of little interest to anyone, started to unravel. Questions arose over his relationship to Maxwell and the pillaged pension funds over the offshore trust, sitting pretty in a tax haven, while Robinson oversaw a reduction in the amount that most people could save tax-free through ISAs the accusation of fraudulent applications for department of trade and industry grants for Transtech. He was forced to apologise to the House by the Commons select committee on standards and priveleges for failing to register his interest in a company he created in 1996. The apology was five sentences long and took only 54 seconds. The next day, the Labour- supporting Express ran a front- page picture of him with the headline "Has he no shame?"

While he had done nothing illegal, he was becoming an embarrassment to a party which had promised that the Tory years of sleaze would be replaced by an administration that was "purer than pure". Blair wanted him to resign but then relented "out of deference to Gordon and me," says Robinson. "Anyone else would have been out on their ear."

Moreover, Robinson showed not only no shame, but no remorse either. "These were acts of omission not commission," he says. "There was no hidden agenda or money in brown envelopes or anything of that kind. The speech was short because there was nothing more to say because there was nothing more to apologise for."

Then came the loan, the resignations, the bitterness and now the authored recrimination which says Robinson has done nothing wrong and Mandelson has. But Robinson got the blame and Mandelson didn't. The truth of the matter somehow seems less striking than the depths to which it has all sunk.

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