Page last updated at 14:06 GMT, Friday, 24 October 2008 15:06 UK

Mandelson faces new tycoon claims

The Queen K
Controversy surrounds what was said on Mr Deripaska's yacht the Queen K

Lord Mandelson's contacts with the Russian tycoon at the heart of the Corfu yacht row date back earlier than previously acknowledged, reports say.

The Guardian says he met Oleg Deripaska in 2004, shortly before he began work as EU trade commissioner.

EU officials previously said the two had met socially in 2006 and 2007.

A spokesman for Lord Mandelson said his contacts with Mr Deripaska had been "well rehearsed" and he was focusing on his new job of business secretary.

But the reports throw a fresh spotlight on his relationship with the Russian billionaire at the centre of the row relating shadow chancellor George Osborne's alleged attempt to solicit a 50,000 Tory donation.

Mr Osborne has firmly denied allegations by financier Nat Rothschild that he tried to solicit a donation from Mr Deripaska. The Electoral Commission, which polices the party spending rules, has rejected calls for an investigation saying that it had seen no evidence of any offence.

It is widely thought that it was Mr Osborne's disclosures about Lord Mandelson's meetings with Mr Deripaska while they were both guests of Mr Rothschild in Corfu that prompted the financier to go public with his own claims about the shadow chancellor.

'Well rehearsed'

Earlier this month, the European Commission cleared Lord Mandelson of any inappropriate links with the tycoon, whose business benefited from a December 2005 decision to ease import duties on Russian aluminium.

But the Guardian says officials who cleared Lord Mandelson had not been aware of a previous meeting between the two men, before he took up his post as trade commissioner.

The newspaper says they had been seen together by a journalist at a Moscow restaurant in October 2004.

A Department for Business spokesman said: "Peter Mandelson's social and other contacts with Oleg Deripaska over a number of years have been well rehearsed.

"He does not believe anything is added by giving regular updates on dates and places where they met or in giving a retrospective running commentary of every meeting he has had with people he met during his time as EU trade commissioner.

"He is now focused on his role as business secretary, helping businesses small and large to cope with the current economic downturn and to position themselves to come out stronger at the other side."

Opinion poll

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for an investigation into George Osborne's links with Mr Deripaska by the appropriate authorities - although Downing Street was not clear on which body might conduct such a probe.

Speaking during a visit to officially open a school building in Stoke-on-Trent, Lord Mandelson, declined to comment on whether he believed the shadow chancellor should face an investigation.

The business secretary said: "This matter has been referred to the appropriate authorities and I really don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment on that.

"What I'm focused on is helping the British economy through difficult times - I'm not going to be distracted on anything else."

Meanwhile Conservative backbencher Douglas Carswell has written to Lord Mandelson to ask him to disclose the times and topics of discussion of his meetings with Mr Deripaska.

He said the letter was sent on his own initiative and if Lord Mandelson does not respond he will raise the issue at the next opportunity in the House of Commons.

An opinion poll suggests just 16% of voter think George Osborne has the judgement necessary to be chancellor of the exchequer, and almost one in three, or 31%, think he should resign from the Conservative frontbench.

The survey for BBC2's Daily Politics was conducted in the wake of the Corfu yacht row.

One in five of those questioned, or 21%, thought Lord Mandelson had the judgement to be business secretary, against 39% who said he does not.

Some 43% said they thought Gordon Brown was wrong to bring Lord Mandelson back into government, against 21% who thought he was right.

Polling organisation ComRes spoke to 1,011 voters on October 22 and 23.

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