by SIMON BAIN
We part with convention here on the blog by publishing a fascinating review of a new book about Tony Blair, written by Simon Bain, personal finance editor at the Herald newspaper. Read on to discover what the former prime minister has REALLY been up to since leaving office…
BLAIR INC. The Man Behind The Mask
Francis Beckett, David Hencke, Nick Kochan. John Blake Publishing |£20.
When Tony Blair left Downing Street in June 2007, he told Time magazine that the Tony Blair Faith Foundation was “how I want to spend the rest of my life”.
His seven-strong personal PR team claims the former PM spends “two-thirds” of his time in “pro bono” work, and that his commercial activities fund his philanthropy.
Now Blair Inc., a dogged journalistic investigation into the 10-year Premier’s extraordinarily lucrative after-life, has uncovered an altogether more complex and disturbing picture.
It had to battle a “huge communications department aimed at not publishing anything” , a subject “who instructs his employees and adherents to give no assistance at all to so disrespectful a project”, and fear induced by 20-page employee secrecy agreements.
As former Prime Minister, Blair takes a pension of £64,000, an office subsidy of £84,000 and security protection which costs the taxpayer £250,000. Is it uncharitable to suggest that a man who donated his £4.6m autobiography advance to a service charity (I wonder why), and who may be worth as much as £60m, might perhaps be able to afford to pay for his own security?
But he probably needs it. Although one of his mentors Bill Clinton popped up in Edinburgh two years ago to address the Scottish Business Awards, Mr Blair’s globetrotting private jet itinerary seems unlikely to take in the country where he was brought up and educated (at Fettes College In Edinburgh) anytime soon.
Aside from fearing a ‘blood on your hands’ Iraq protest, any UK charity event might expect Mr Blair’s fee to go – as Mr Clinton’s £200,000 fee did that night – straight to his African charity. The Clinton Foundation is in partnership with Scottish entrepreneur and philanthropist Sir Tom Hunter to fund projects in Africa which government aid never reaches. But while Mr Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative also does some worthy work, it operates under the same secrecy blanket that covers the whole TB empire. Like the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, its donors are unknown. Do the charities benefit from Mr Blair’s eye-watering speaking fees, and the monster consultancy contracts won by Tony Blair Associates? If so, to what extent?
Neither TBA nor the “entirely separate” charities disclose any such information. They say it’s all above board with the Charity Commission – which has found it necessary to investigate the relationships with Blair’s commercial interests.
But while the Africa Governance Initiative says its aim is to bring “British standards of governance” to Africa, there is a rich irony in that Mr Blair’s own interests are said (by specialist academic Dr Nicholas Allen of University of London) to be in probable breach of six of the seven Nolan principles – the ethical code for public life introduced when Blair himself was PM.
Of course, Blair’s interests are not subject to the Nolan test – or any other code. Officially, he’s just a businessman.
“When Blair left government, he sought to build a global consultancy not unlike the government he had left. He turned himself into an international outsourcing company,” the authors say.
But when he left Downing Street eight years ago, in high dudgeon at the Labour Party having dispensed with him, the fallen idol couldn’t resist taking a high-profile public role as well. He wanted to become President of the EU, but that would have to wait, so he settled for Quartet Representative (QR) in the Middle East. That is supposed to mean “peace envoy” in the region for the US, EU, Russia and the UN.
“I think he does it because he likes to continue to feel like an international statesman and not just a businessman,” says former Tory foreign minister Malcolm Rifkind (recently revealed to be not averse to a bit of paid-for diplomacy).
Critics, including former Labour colleague Lord Hollick, say his agenda of economic investment for the Palestinians is doomed to fail as peace and stability must come first. The authors say: “There is nothing exciting about bus routes, Gaza border openings and security barriers in the West Bank. But this is what being the Quartet negotiator was mean to be about. It is a job to which Blair, with his once over lightly, butterfly approach to diplomacy, was entirely unsuited.”
They go on: “The fact is that it is not peace but money – both real money and pretend money – that is at the heart of what TB does in the Middle East. And that makes it all a chimera because private sector money is not going to flow into Palestine without real political progress towards peace.”
If Blair had, like his predecessor James Wolfensohn, devoted himself to the job and achieved something reminiscent of his Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland,“it would be enough for most of us to say, well done Tony”.
But in reality the unpaid envoy’s “one week a month” in the conflict zone typically amounts to “arriving on Monday evening and leaving on Thursday morning”, according to one diplomat. More importantly, he is not trusted by the Palestinians – partly because the Tony Blair Faith Foundation is known to have major donors such as fiercely pro-Israeli lobbyist Saim Haban, one of the billionaire “old chums” who help to fund the Blair empire’s activities. “For the Quartet Representative to be so deeply indebted to Saban, even though wearing another hat, is a serious problem,” the authors say.
But the role enabled Blair to step straight into the role of shadow statesman and fantasy head of state. He turned his two principal homes into clones of number 10 and Chequers, and used two-way recruitment links with two secretive specialist agencies to maximise an international network for his own, private, diplomatic consultancy.
While his QR effort has arguably borne little fruit, his frequent visits to the Gulf states have been highly productive for his principal business, Tony Blair Associates.
Even the African charity offers “the chance to make contact with and attract the adulation and acclaim of African leaders”, the authors suggest. They do cite one example of Gulf state investment into Guinea, possibly brokered by Mr Blair, while a Blair supporter says he has unlocked some investment for the Palestinians from previously indifferent Gulf states. But which hat he was wearing at the time nobody knows, and all inquiries about the Quartet go straight to Blair’s personal press office.
The envoy can use the Quartet job as a “calling card”, yet is bound by no code of conduct. If he worked for the World Bank, IMF or UN he would have to set out in full all commercial interests – as he would by taking a seat in the House of Lords, to which he is entitled.
In Kuwait, Mr Blair’s introduction to the Emir in 2009 as Quartet Representative, when he was accompanied only by his strictly personal adviser Jonathan Powell, was quickly followed by a consultancy contract for TBA said to be worth £27m , but not disclosed until 2010. At the same time, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments revealed a TBA contract to advise a consortium involved in an Iraqi oilfield. Mr Blair is a regular caller in Abu Dhabi, where he also has a government contract, and the authors ask: “Which Tony Blair keeps visiting Abu Dhabi?” Of peace envoy, charity patron, and consultancy principal “it generally seems to be the last-named who benefits most”, they suggest.
An opaque web of 12 legal entities – all under Mr Blair’s control – hides everything, including speaking fees said by one charity to “start at £500,000” .
In Qatar, one of the book’s sources alleges, he earned “$5m for one meeting”.
Tony Blair Associates’ known clients, with guesstimates of deal value, include the Emir of Kuwait (£27m) Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi (£1m a year) the President of Kazakhstan (£8m a year), US investment bank JP Morgan ($4m a year), UI Energy which bought the oilfields in Iraq, and LVMH, run by the world’s fourth richest man Bernard Arnault and another old chum.
How does he rake in so much?
US billionaire and “former chum” Tim Collins says Blair’s $4m a year from JPMorgan is for “opening doors… the idea he is giving advice to anyone seems to me a stretch”.
The authors say: “When governments call on Blair they want not only the man but his contacts. This partly explains the eyewatering amounts corporates and wealthy individuals will pay for the Blair mystique…the fact that Blair does little more than pick up the phone to a contact he has recruited through a consultancy never reaches the ears of a deep-pocket who wants a call made or a back scratched”.
The most disturbing dimension of this investigation is the shadowy links forged by Blair with such non-New Labour regimes as Libya under Gaddafi, Qatar, Rwanda, Burma and Azerbaijan. The authors pay particular attention to the human rights records of these autocratic clients, or potential clients, of TBA and suggest that while the spin is all about helping these nations to progress, the reality tends to amount to “burnishing a dictator’s image”.
Blair held six private meetings with Gaddafi before his downfall, and his protégés Baroness Symons and former minister Stephen Byers were active in Gaddafi’s defence right up to his toppling.
In Azerbaijan Blair is reported to have made speeches at £100,000 a throw for politicians who are close to President Aliyev – the man whose 2013 election win was announced before the votes were counted.
Two days before the Scottish referendum, Tony Blair piped up for the Union. But while every other concerned politician was on the stump in Scotland, Blair pontificated from Crimea, where he was guest of Victor Pinchuk, one of Ukraine’s three principal oligarchs and the 255th richest man in the world. Just another of the globetrotting plutocrats – Pinchuk has a mansion in Kensington – who helps to boost the balance sheet of Blair Inc. (Talking of pontiffs, Blair is said to be well out of favour at the Vatican since he took to advising Pope Benedict on doctrinal matters.)
Private consultancies can earn fortunes from advising dubious regimes round the world and keep it nice and quiet. But TBA is different – it is Blair’s.
His corporate empire employs 200 and may have earned £54m in 2013. Tony and Cherie own 36 properties, including five overseas and two blocks of flats, and they could be worth £60m.
James Wolfensohn, who really did dedicate himself to the Quartet job, says discreetly of Blair: “He has helped especially bankers and their clients who want to see the rulers or their leaders. It has allowed him to be very well compensated.That is fair game and that is what a lot of former politicians and leaders do.”
But while Mr Clinton’s wealth is (at present) even greater, and John Major and Margaret Thatcher both took hugely-paid directorships with controversial US companies, all three are relatively untainted. The Daily Telegraph says that’s because Blair is a ‘human cash register’ compared with the feeble efforts of his predecessors – the first Labour Prime Minister Attlee left £7,295 in his Will.
“Nothing is too grand for the Blairs,” say the authors, who boggle at the couple’s pursuit of money. Cherie suffered severe financial insecurity as a child, they note. “Blair too suffered some childhood insecurity though not as great…how far do these personal factors explain their apparent need to build wealth way beyond their needs? And to what extent is it due to the fact that Blair admires, and is dazzled by, the very rich?”
The FT has suggested that these days it becomes part of the job at an early stage because “most leaders link up with the plutocratic class while still in office”.
Blair certainly tilled the ground well, and is now reaping the harvest. What else he may reap, this founder of a faith foundation and opinionated Roman Catholic, is perhaps not one for the economists, but for the theologians.