The Room Went Quiet. `I Didn't Know You Had a Loan' Mandelson : The Biography
Macintyre, Donald, The Independent (London, England)
The suite of windowless, low-ceiling basement rooms under the Department of Trade and Industry headquarters in Victoria Street are soulless even by the standards of premises owned by Her Majesty's Government. But on the evening of Wednesday 17 December 1998 nobody minded that. There was a steady hum of euphoric chatter as some of Whitehall's brightest and best celebrated what most of them considered the department's greatest triumph since the general election. Partly, of course, it was because Christmas was coming; there was an end-of-term atmosphere. But it was also because of the event which the civil servants and DTI ministers had come to honour. Peter Mandelson, and his most senior officials, felt that the Competitiveness White Paper, unveiled just over two hours earlier, was the crowning achievement of his six months at the department.
It was a few minutes after they left the party that his 24-year- old assistant, Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, broke the news to Mandelson that his pounds 373,000 home loan from Geoffrey Robinson, arranged in 1996, was soon to become public in a book about the Industry Secretary. If Mandelson was terrified by the prospect, he did not show it.
The following morning, in his large, modernist eighth-floor office, its huge picture window looking down over Westminster Abbey, he convened a meeting with Sir Michael Scholar and other officials. He took this remarkable meeting in what one of those present would later observe was a very "Peterish" way. He asked Sir Michael to refresh his memory on his role, or lack of it, in the DTI investigation into complaints over Robinson's business and financial affairs, including the letters he had written to Conservative MPs on the subject. Back in September, when Scholar had told Mandelson about the investigation into Robinson, by now a Treasury minister, he had accepted the permanent secretary's view that he and other DTI ministers should not be "involved in the process". When Scholar had finished his resume, Mandelson said quietly: "Well, even if I had not had a loan to buy my house from Geoffrey, I would have still stood aside from the investigation." There was a long, ominous pause. "I didn't know you had a loan to buy your house," Scholar replied, just as quietly. "We'll have to look into it." It was a conversation which should have taken place almost exactly six months earlier, when Mandelson, thrilled to be in the Cabinet at last, and with a department of his own, first arrived to replace Margaret Beckett at the DTI on the day of the reshuffle. Now, though he did not yet realise this, it was too late. How did it happen? How was it that a politician so famous for being Tony Blair's human radar, so skilled at spotting the treacherous shallows and reefs that lie in wait for any government, could fail to see the jagged rock on which his own boat would founder? One of the Labour Party's most uncompromising chieftains puts himself under an enormous obligation - however generously and innocently conferred - to one of his greatest adversary's closest allies. Then he fails either to consult or inform Tony Blair, his own best friend in politics, apparently for no better reason than that his benefactor has exhorted him not to. When he arrives in government, a bloodied veteran of campaigns against Tory violations of ministerial standards, he does not tell the Cabinet Secretary of his plainly embarrassing financial obligations. At any point he could probably have prevented the coming catastrophe. If a colleague had been in the same position he would have convened crisis meetings, organised swat teams, devised a media strategy, enlisted accountants, told him to sell his house - virtually anything to defuse the ticking explosive under the seat of government. Instead, even when every three months or so Wegg- Prosser mentioned the loan, usually when they were sitting in the very house it had funded, he merely shuddered briefly and changed the subject. …