Even Tony Blair’s bodyguards are finding themselves caught in the glare of the British press these days. Over the weekend, the right-leaning Daily Telegraph—traditionally, no friend to the former prime minister—ran an item describing how “dark-suited men who appeared to be protection officers” were observed at a swanky New York restaurant tasting food before it made its way to Blair. If the image sounds more fitting for a paranoid king than a British statesman, it’s no accident—as of late, a series of news reports have unflatteringly painted Blair as a man with lots of shadowy secrets to hide about his private life and financial largess.
On Sunday, the same day as the Telegraph’s mocking bodyguard piece, the popular tabloid The Daily Mail brazenly questioned the long-married Blair’s relationship with an attractive and fabulously wealthy Israeli businesswoman. But the meat of the criticism has come from the Telegraph, and has focused on the business dealings and diplomatic work that Blair has busied himself with since the end of his time in office in 2007—or, more to the point, the uncomfortable blurring of both. Articles published over the weekend, and an investigation that aired tonight on Channel 4, entitled “The Wonderful World of Tony Blair,” have taken dead aim at Blair’s life after Downing Street.
In a Telegraph piece on Friday, Peter Oborne, the paper’s chief political commentator, shed light on some particularly tangled webs Blair has been weaving as a MidEast peace envoy for the Quartet—the U.S., Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations. According to the Telegraph, under the auspices of the Quartet, Blair has conducted a series of trips to visit Middle Eastern leaders, including former Libyan dictator Muammar Ghaddafi and the emir of Kuwait, wherein he allegedly played the diplomat “in the morning,” then turned around and lobbied the same leaders for business deals for his commercial consultancy, Tony Blair Associates, or for J.P. Morgan, a U.S. bank that employs him as an adviser, reportedly to the tune of 2 million pounds a year. Both Blair and J.P. Morgan have issued denials that any conflict of interest exists or that Blair had expressly lobbied Mideast leaders on the bank’s behalf.
The documentary accuses Blair of caring more about enriching himself than about peace in the MidEast and Palestine.
The paper noted that Blair has been living a “jet-setting billionaire lifestyle” and slammed his behavior as “an extraordinary confusion of public duty and private interest.” It’s a charge that has been leveled against other former world leaders who have raked in big bucks since leaving office, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who has been criticized by conservatives for earning millions in speaking engagements from foreign companies while his wife served in the U.S. Senate.
The piece preempted a flurry of negative headlines over the weekend, mostly from the Telegraph itself—“Tony Blair’s Byzantine World of Advisers and Lucrative Deals,” “Tony Blair’s Six Secret Visits to Col. Gaddafi,” “Tony Blair Linked To Libyan Deal With Russian Oligarch”—all leading up to the Oborne-authored program on Channel 4 tonight.
Some noteworthy items from the Channel 4 report:
Blair is a lot richer than you think
The report opens with a look at exactly how rich Tony Blair has become after leaving office, and the dazzling variety of ways he’s made his money. The former prime minister has so far netted a reported 9 million pounds for his public speaking engagements. He gets half a million pounds a year from Swiss insurers Zurich, as well as the aforementioned 2 million pounds yearly from J.P. Morgan, a contract signed a mere seven months after his tenure ended at Downing Street. He’s also paid to promote Louis Vuitton. “It’s impossible to tell exactly how much Tony Blair is being paid,” says Oborne in the segment. Suffice it to say, it’s a staggering amount.
Of course, Blair’s no longer a public servant, so making money isn’t a crime. But Oborne goes on to accuse Blair of caring too much about enriching himself, and not enough about his stated mission of peace between Palestine and Israel.
Blair’s financial interests are distracting him from his mandate at the Quartet: peace and development in Palestine.
Oborne talks to a coterie of Palestinians—politicians, businesspeople—who say Blair hasn’t done enough to help them, or even spent all that much time in the area. (Blair points out that there are significant security concerns.) Oborne notes that Blair chooses instead to keep to his office in Jerusalem in what is termed “millionaire’s row." A Palestinian minister tells Oborne, “No, it hasn’t been enough…spending three to four days in the country doesn’t really help much.”
Blair’s dual roles as diplomat and paid adviser have brought some serious conflicts of interest.
The most damning accusation is that Blair’s work of behalf of the Quartet has been besmirched by serious conflicts of interest with his role as a J.P. Morgan advisor. According to Oborne, Blair persuaded the Israeli government to free up frequencies so that mobile phone company Wataniya could operate in the West Bank. The head of the network praises Blair’s role in the deal. “November 2009, we were nothing. And since then, we have done fantastically well.” The phone company’s stock has surged as a result of the West Bank business. But it turns out that Wataniya’s parent company is a client of J.P. Morgan. (The bank says it plays only a minor role in advising the parent company.) It’s not the only deal Blair has been pushing in Palestine that has ties to the U.S. bank: Blair has also lobbied for the development of a gas field off Gaza. The company that owns rights to the field, British Gas Group, is also a J.P. Morgan client. A spokesman for Blair told British press that the former prime minister was unaware of the connections, and that he only advocated for both projects at the request of Palestinian requests. Even so, Oborne paints the issue as a moral one: “No one could expect one man to bring peace to Palestine,” he says. “Blair’s mission is all but impossible. But given that his job is so hard…it’s vital that he’s seen as an honest broker.”
Once out of office, Blair may have profited from his most controversial act as prime minister—the joint invasion of Iraq.
Not long after leaving No. 10 Downing, Oborne reports, Blair was flying to Kuwait—a country that benefited greatly from the fall of Saddam Hussein—where Tony Blair Associates eventually landed a 27 million pound contract to advise on Kuwait’s economy. This much has been reported in the past, but Oborne notes that one of Blair’s advisers at his consultancy even accompanied him to meeting that Blair was ostensibly conducting for the Quartet. “On one hand, our former prime minister is promoting peace,” says Oborne. “On the other, he is earning millions from an autocrat in the same region. In fact, more than one.” Blair also has strong links to Abu Dhabi; he advises a sovereign wealth fund with ties to the crown that has had interests in the Iraqi oil sector.
Tony Blair “makes his own rules.”
So a senior French diplomat, who worked for Blair at the Quartet’s Jerusalem office, tells Oborne. It’s true that Blair’s amorphous role at the Quartet, and at the head of Tony Blair Associates, and as a lofty adviser for private companies, makes him accountable to no one—not the British taxpayers, who help foot his Quartet bill, nor any of the other Quartet powers. “Blair’s businesses are shrouded in secrecy,” says Oborne, “but his public role as Quartet representative is also hard to pin down.” If Blair had a more defined diplomatic role, it might be easier to point to a smoking gun of behavior that crossed the line from shady over into illegal. As it is, though, Blair should be able to weather the recent onslaught of bad press.
Paul Staines—the influential British blogger known as Guido Fawkes, a frequent Blair antagonist—thinks it will take a lot more than this to put a hitch in Blair’s stride. “I think Blair will get away with it,” Staines says. “He’s a class act, you know?”