Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 27 October 2000
Like most other political journalists, over the past month I’ve spent rather more time than is healthy immersed in books that might be described as the continuation of internal Labour politics by other means – first Andrew Rawnsley’s chilling Servants of the People, then Julia Langdon’s somewhat disappointing life of Mo Mowlam, and now Geoffrey Robinson’s The Unconventional Minister.
Of the three, Robinson’s is the least revealing in conventional journalistic terms. The Daily Mail spent a lot of dosh on the serialisation rights, and it cannot be very pleased with what it got: the former Paymaster General’s account of how he came to lend Peter Mandelson the cash for his Notting Hill pad; a few snippets adding telling detail to what we already knew about the late-1997 crisis over Government policy on the euro; and, well, that’s about it apart from a lot of self-serving drivel. “My business dealings were never dodgy, I never tried to buy influence and it’s not fair that they’ve ditched me” pretty well sums it up.
But it would be a mistake simply to dismiss the book as a damp squib, showing at most that Robinson is a political ingénue and a Quixotic axe-grinder. Robinson’s memoirs might be short of hot poop, but the stench of ordure that hangs about them is so nauseating that it cannot be ignored.
Here, for the first time, we have a key New Labour player blowing the gaffe on the record about the internal workings of the Government. (The inverted commas are entirely appropriate, for there is nothing new about Robinson, an old Labour Eurosceptic Right-wing tribalist, apart from his money.) The Unconventional Minister confirms what we all knew but had hitherto been relayed only via unattributable briefings: that Labour’s upper echelons are dominated by competing cabals characterised by petty vindictiveness and personal hatreds. Robinson’s authentication of the viciousness at the top of New Labour – particularly when it comes to Europe policy – is invaluable.
And Robinson was a key player. He not only provided Mandelson with a lifestyle appropriate to his station and bankrolled the private offices of Gordon Brown (directly) and Tony Blair (indirectly, or so it seems). He also “delivered” the New Statesman to New Labour in 1996 by stepping in to buy it at the request of Brown and Blair, appointing their chosen candidate as editor and then pouring millions in to subsidise its losses. And for a couple of years his largesse supported a New Labour salon. In 1996-98, if you weren’t part of the Grosvenor Hotel set, you weren’t anyone. In 1997-98, during his brief spell as Paymaster General, Robinson was a senior member of Brown’s Treasury team with responsibility for a crucial area of policy, the private finance initiative.
Now, Robinson is not my favourite politician. I had dealings with him briefly after he bought the Statesman, when he reluctantly made me acting editor for a few weeks following the resignation of Steve Platt, whose deputy I’d been. I found the new proprietor rude, patronising and deeply unattractive politically: in fact, everything about him, right down to his pungent aftershave, gave me the creeps. It was a relief when the magazine’s new editor, Ian Hargreaves, unceremoniously fired me. And I must admit that, when I heard about the resignation of Robinson and Mandelson from the government in 1998, I ordered champagne (which was easy, because I was in a Soho restaurant at Tribune’s Christmas lunch).
But it’s not hard to see why Robinson still feels peeved at the way he was treated by New Labour. His reward for all those favours, all that disinterested generosity, was to be dumped without so much as a “thank you” – while Mandelson, whose failure to declare the house loan was a real scandal, returned to the Cabinet after a few months in the wilderness.
My hunch is that Robinson’s attempted revenge is unlikely to have much immediate effect beyond turning the stomachs of many of his readers: he certainly has not made Mandelson’s position untenable and – god forbid – might even have made a few people feel sorry for him. In the longer term, however, some good might come of his self-pitying tale. If nothing else, it should at least deter other plutocrats from flashing their wads around the Labour Party.