Alexander Chancellor

Long life | 13 August 2015

Tony Blair’s cavorting with a right-wing billionaire mired in scandal epitomises what the Labour party is now trying to leave behind

Long life | 13 August 2015
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I’m going off Jeremy Corbyn. He seems more and more pleased with himself by the minute. But I understand why he is so popular with Labour supporters. It isn’t just his perceived authenticity in a field of machine politicians — the same attribute that has thrust Donald Trump to the fore in the race for the Republican nomination in the United States. It is something of which I have been reminded this week by the news that Silvio Berlusconi is planning to sell his preposterous Sardinian villa to a Saudi prince, and this is the shame felt by so many party members over their long servility to Tony Blair. For perhaps nothing better exemplifies Blair’s indifference to Labour sensibilities than his visit with Cherie to the Villa Certosa in 2004.

Despite the monastic implications of its name, the Villa Certosa is — to quote a headline from the Times — ‘the ultimate in property porn’. It is a sprawling estate on Sardinia’s Emerald Coast, with 168 acres of garden, six swimming pools, an amphitheatre, an artificial volcano, and direct access by tunnel to the sea. But despite the kind of security that would appeal to the Saudi royal family, this didn’t prevent one enterprising paparazzo from taking photos of a large number of scantily clad girls at one of Berlusconi’s ‘bunga bunga’ entertainments. The pictures included a remarkable one of a former Czech prime minister, Mirek Topolánek, completely naked and in a state of sexual arousal.

Berlusconi, Italy’s longest-serving prime minister since Mussolini, was choosy about who he invited to the Villa Certosa (unless, that is, they were teenage models). Among foreign leaders, he would invite only those he regarded as his personal ‘friends’, such as George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. But not even these giants on the world stage were fêted quite as lavishly as his really close ‘friend’, Tony Blair. The war in Iraq was at its height. Thousands were dying there. But this didn’t inhibit the gaiety of the celebrations during the Blairs’ 24-hour visit.

Four years later Cherie Blair still recalled it with rapture. ‘I have never had an evening like the one I had in Sardinia,’ she said in an interview with an Italian magazine. ‘Fireworks lit up the words “Viva Tony”, and we all sang “Summertime” together.’ Many in the Labour party had recoiled in horror at the sight of their leader cavorting shamelessly in public with a right-wing billionaire mired in financial and sexual scandal. Could it have been some diplomatic imperative that had driven him to accept this unwelcome invitation? Alas, no. In the same interview Cherie spoke with pride about the ‘friendship and trust’ that existed between Berlusconi and her husband.

The two prime ministers had, of course, one or two things in common. They were united in subservience to President Bush and alone among the leaders of major European countries (apart from the little Spanish prime minister José María Aznar, who left office soon after it started) in their unswerving support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This colossal misjudgment, deeply unpopular in the Labour party at the time, has haunted Tony Blair ever since and has now been cited by Jeremy Corbyn as a possible pretext for trying him as a war criminal. Yet I feel that Blair’s taste for the high life, his habit of spongeing off the rich, and his addiction to glamorous foreign holidays sticks just as much in the craw of traditional Labour voters.

Until 2001, when foot-and-mouth disease struck Britain, the Blairs used to stay regularly each summer in Tuscany with Prince Girolamo Guicciardini Strozzi, an aristocrat of the grandest and most ancient lineage. That he didn’t go back subsequently seems to have been thanks less to his own political sensitivity than to that of the Italian nobleman, who said in a newspaper interview at the time that ‘it would seem strange, as foot-and-mouth disease lays waste to the British tourism industry, for the prime minister to be seen going off with his family to Tuscany again. I wouldn’t do it. That’s for sure.’

Since leaving office, Blair has been free to enrich and indulge himself as much as he wants, thus drifting ever further away from the party he once led. He may have given Labour 13 years in power, but at such discomfort to the party that many of its members would do anything to feel good about themselves again, even if it means languishing in opposition for a while yet. I don’t know where the Blairs are vacationing this summer, but Jeremy Corbyn isn’t having a holiday at all.