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Tuesday, December 22, 1998 Published at 13:40 GMT

UK Politics

'Mandelson broke his own rules'

Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair created New Labour

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Of all Tony Blair's ministers it is Peter Mandelson himself who should most understand the uproar caused by his financial links with controversial Paymaster General Geoffrey Robinson.

For the greatest part of his political life, Mr Mandelson has been engaged in a crusade to transform the Labour Party, with great emphasis placed on all MPs and parliamentary candidates being whiter than white - and being seen to be so.

He knows exactly how the media works and that the impression of wrongdoing or a conflict of interest can be almost as damaging as actual impropriety.

[ image: MPs wondered how Mandelson funded his lavish lifestyle]
MPs wondered how Mandelson funded his lavish lifestyle
So what has most astonished MPs on all sides is that he should have kept his huge, preferential loan from Mr Robinson a secret for so long, particularly once the paymaster general's business affairs came under scrutiny.

His persistent claims that he didn't declare the loan because it was a personal matter and involved no conflict of interest would not pass what many believe is one of Mr Mandelson_s first rules - that it is not for the individual concerned to decide what is acceptable and whether or not to declare it.

His problems are only heightened by the fact that he has so many enemies both within the media, which he has always been ready to lean on in a bid to have his own spin put on stories, and on his own backbenches.

Left-winger Diane Abbott reflected what many of Mr Mandelson_s critics are thinking when she asked why he needed to live in a hugely expensive town house in one of London's most fashionable districts when most MPs simply used their living allowance to find a bedsit.

And the trade secretary's lavish lifestyle has long been a matter of Commons gossip with MPs and Westminster watchers wondering where he got his money from. Now they know.

But his troubles are only the latest in a series of money-related matters that have plagued the government since it was elected on a "cleaner-than-clean" platform.

The worst is the case of Britain's first Muslim MP, Glasgow's Mohammed Sarwar, who is facing charges of fraud and attempting to pervert the course of justice.

There is no parallel with Mr Mandelson's problems, and Tony Blair dealt with the issue swiftly. But it was a major embarrassment.

[ image: The Bernie Ecclestone donation was Labour's first cash scandal]
The Bernie Ecclestone donation was Labour's first cash scandal
Then there was the damaging episode surrounding the £1m donation to Labour coffers by Formula One racing boss Bernie Ecclestone.

The donation was returned after it emerged Mr Ecclestone had met the prime minister and may have lobbied him over the government's plans to ban tobacco advertising at racing tracks.

But, probably most damaging of all are the persistent probes into Mr Robinson's own activities.

The multi-millionaire first came under the spotlight shortly after the election when it was revealed he had offshore interests.

Last January he was criticised by the parliamentary ombudsman for failing to declare the interest in the MPs' register.

He was cleared of breaking any rules but standards watchdog Sir Gordon Downey added: "Nevertheless, his potential interest _ would have been better registered."

A flurry of accusations followed, eagerly picked up or instigated by the opposition, including links with companies owned by the late media baron Robert Maxwell.

Last month, the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee finally produced their report into the latest allegations.

It criticised the paymaster general for failing to register interests and ordered him to make a personal apology to the Commons.

[ image: Geoffrey Robinson: Many predict his imminent exit from the Cabinet]
Geoffrey Robinson: Many predict his imminent exit from the Cabinet
Mr Robinson infuriated many on all sides when that apology lasted under a minute.

But still the accusations flowed and there was further embarrassment when it was discovered he was advertising himself in Yellow Pages in the category of Political Consultants.

He insisted the listing was simply an error and should have been under political organisations, if anywhere.

Tony Blair has stood by his controversial minister but most now believe his Cabinet future is in serious doubt.

The Tories make much play of the fact that he is seldom to be seen in the Commons, and even less at the despatch box taking questions.

And there is little doubt that, had Mr Mandelson accepted a friendly loan from almost any other minister whilst in opposition, it would have caused less of a storm.

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