Here's to you, Mr R

The Paymaster: Geoffrey Robinson, Maxwell and new Labour

Tom Bower <em>Simon & Schuster, 272pp, £1

Geoffrey Robinson is one of those mysterious, marginal figures who occasionally flit across the political landscape, stirring controversy, but leaving little mark. He has sought to bridge the worlds of industry and politics, but has never been treated as a major player by either. A member of the House of Commons for 25 years, his real influence lasted four years at most, and he was a middle-ranking minister for less than 20 months.

He has always seemed elusive, charming but hard to pin down, not operating on the same wavelength as others in the political world. Only in the past few years have details emerged of his extraordinary career - more chequered and less successful on the business side than the image of the industrial maestro he likes to project. His wealth turns out to have depended heavily on Joska Bourgeois, the Belgian car dealer, tax exile and sexual predator, with whom Robinson enjoyed a complicated relationship as personal confidant, business adviser, middle-aged toyboy and, most crucially, financial beneficiary.

To Tom Bower, Robinson has been not only hypocritical, but also dishonest. "The list of transgressions was considerable: the socialist breaking exchange controls at Innocenti: the huge costs and bribery scandal surrounding the paint-shop at Jaguar: the chaos of Meriden's accounts; his refusal to register and pay for the use of patents; his alleged dishonest use of DTI grants at TransTec; the unexplained finances of Agie UK; his strange deals with Robert Maxwell which enriched Robinson at the expense of others: all the interests which were unregistered in parliament; and finally his failure to disclose his invoice for £200,000 from Hollis." This amounts to a lengthy charge sheet, to which Robinson has not fully answered.

Bower specialises in villains and rogues, and he seeks to portray Robinson as a mini-Maxwell, a dodgy businessman eager to insinuate himself with the powerful. Robinson's motives and actions are depicted as self-serving, usually duplicitous and insincere, and often associated with drunken womanising.

The portrait lacks any shading, and is too one-dimensional to be convincing. Bower also reveals a shaky grasp of Labour politics. At one stage, he refers to trade unionists infiltrating the Labour Party in the early 1980s, seemingly ignorant that it was unions that created the party.

Robinson cut corners in his various companies and was, to say the least, highly evasive about his offshore interests, leading to several rebukes from the Standards and Privileges Committee. But to compare him with Maxwell is absurd.

The most interesting question addressed by Bower is Robinson's relations with Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. They were content to benefit from his money and hospitality, in Mayfair's Grosvenor House Hotel and Tuscany, with few questions asked. Their behaviour is typical of new Labour's mixture of naivety and ethical blindness about links with the wealthy.

It is easy to portray Robinson as buying his way to power, and then ministerial office, through his largesse. But that is too simplistic. Ambition obviously played a part; as did generosity linked to his new-found wealth from the Bourgeois legacy; plus, unacknowledged by Bower, a desire to contribute to Brown's thinking on policy. Robinson's help before 1997, in commissioning and financing research on the windfall levy and other taxes from leading accountancy firms, is viewed by Bower largely as an aspect of cronyism. In practice, his work made Labour better prepared for government.

However, Robinson should never have become a minister. As a free-wheeling businessman, he was temperamentally unsuited to the disciplines of office. This was not just about his clashes with the then Sir Terry Burns, the Treasury permanent secretary, over his outside interests. Robinson sought to bypass normal, and well-justified, procedures when trying to bring in outside financial advisers. He did not understand the difference between business and government, and blurred the proper lines between politicians and civil servants.

Bower depicts me as a "loyal" journalist in discussing Robinson. In retrospect, I was too charitable to Robinson's account of his offshore interests. But Bower omits any reference to a highly critical column I wrote in June 1998, questioning whether Robinson was any good as a minister. I pointed to his muddled role in trying to broker a deal to help the coal industry, as well as his mishandling of the original flawed plan for ISAs.

This article prompted a vigorous defence from both Brown and Robinson (with an extraordinary personal endorsement of his strengths as a minister, in Robinson's presence, by Steve Robson, a senior Treasury official). But that was his last hurrah. Robinson was gone within six months, along with Peter Mandelson. It is a strange saga. For all his faults and slipperiness, Robinson emerges almost more as victim than villain. Blair and Brown enjoyed his generosity and he got little in return.

Peter Riddell is a political columnist for the Times and the author of Parliament Under Blair (Politico's Publishing, £12.99)