The Paymaster: Brown Refuses to Be Drawn into Robinson `Gossip' ; Questions and Threat of Legal Action after Newspaper Serialisation of Biography Claims Ministers Tried to Hide Tax Arrangements
Nigel Morris Political Correspondent, The Independent (London, England)
GORDON BROWN yesterday vehemently denied allegations that he had tried to browbeat his most senior civil servant into issuing a press release which cast a favourable light on the financial affairs of the former paymaster general, Geoffrey Robinson.
He hit out after being confronted by claims that he personally intervened to back up Mr Robinson's explanation of his tangled tax arrangements.
The Daily Mail alleged that Mr Brown tried to pressurise the Treasury's permanent secretary, Sir Terry Burns, into endorsing his embattled minister's version of events.
Mr Brown reacted angrily after he was pressed by Conservative MP David Ruffley at a Treasury select committee meeting on the Mail's "highly damaging allegations". The Chancellor, visibly irritated by the line of questioning, said: "The Treasury has already issued a statement about this completely misleading report in the Daily Mail and I intend to add nothing to that. I am not prepared to diminish this hearing on the Budget by getting into gossip. I was invited to this committee to discuss the Budget and related matters.
"I have issued a statement that this is fictional nonsense. I am not prepared, without prior notice, to go into issues that are related to gossip and fiction that I have no knowledge of."
The Chancellor is said to have personally drafted a press release from the Treasury denying that Mr Robinson - one of his ministers - had covered up having money in an offshore trust and claiming he had told Sir Terry about it. The civil servant refused to endorse it.
Mr Brown is also said to have telephoned Sir Terry a week later from New York asking what Mr Robinson had done wrong. The Mail interpreted that as the Chancellor failing to "hide his irritation" with a "difficult official who had failed to satisfy a reasonable request from the Paymaster General".
But, in a terse statement released shortly after the first edition of the Mail was printed yesterday, the Treasury said: "The allegations involving the Chancellor are farcical nonsense for the which the article provides no evidence." A friend of Mr Brown said: "We don't want to rake over different versions of historical events."
The Chancellor is the second Cabinet minister to be drawn into the controversy sparked by the serialisation in the Mail of The Paymaster, a biography of Mr Robinson by investigative journalist Tom Bower.
Like the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Stephen Byers, he strongly denies the claims, which ministers fear could foreshadow an election onslaught on the Government's integrity by the Mail. …