If all political careers end in failure, Tony Blair’s political afterlife is a failure most of us would be happy to inhabit.
Blair, the most controversial former British prime minister to still draw breath, earns around $200,000 a pop for speaking engagements, and has amassed a vast fortune since leaving office and a powerful charitable legacy.
Now he has declared a return, of sorts, to British political life with the launch of a new organization which he said in a statement will seek to counter “the new populism”—the kind of mentality that, in his view, saw the UK vote to leave the EU in this year’s referendum.
Blair has already offered himself as a rallying figure for the Brexit pushback, telling an interviewer, “The country has taken a decision in a referendum, there is no way that decision can be reversed, unless once people see the facts, they change their mind.”
That Blair, who was often accused of elitism and bypassing the democratic process when in power—most notably by taking Britain to war in Iraq on the basis of flawed intelligence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction—should be returning to the public eye on a platform of nakedly aiming to undo a democratic vote, is not entirely surprising to those that know him.
“The thing about him that people don’t really acknowledge is the depth of his faith,” one acquaintance told The Daily Beast of Blair, who famously converted to Catholicism after his resignation as PM, “He is deeply religious. George Bush said he was going to invade Iraq because God had told him to and Blair felt the same way. He is therefore completely assured of the rightness of whatever he does.”
Despite his Catholicism Blair is clearly comfortable ignoring the Bible’s warning that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, for he is fantastically wealthy.
He and his wife, Cherie—a powerful lawyer—have amassed a property empire estimated at some $34 million.
The couple lives in great style in a gigantic stucco townhouse which fronts onto a desirable West London square. The Blairs have also purchased the mews house which backs onto their large garden from a parallel street to create a totally private compound in the heart of the city. They additionally own the South Pavilion, a fabulous country home in Buckinghamshire estimated to be worth $7 million and are co-owners with their eldest son Euan of a $4.5 million house in Marleybone given as a wedding present to Euan and his stunning wife, Suzanne (who once worked for one of Blair’s charitable foundations).
Blair lives the life of discrete millionaire in London, say sources.
“He is very conscious of not looking flash,” an acquaintance tells The Daily Beast, “He is always very well dressed. He is also very conscious that lots of people hate him. So when he goes for dinner it’s a quiet private place, like the private member’s club Mark’s Club. He is not popping Champagne corks in Nobu.
“He is absolutely compelling and you definitely get that feeling being around him that you are the most important person he has ever met. And people want to pay him a lot of money to come and talk to them after dinner, so fair enough, he takes it.”
But the Blairs don’t only make money from Tony’s public speaking. Blair controversially gave paid public relations advice to a Kazakh dictator after that country’s police shot 15 protestors dead and Blair’s apparent pursuit of money after leaving office has been much criticized in the British press.
Blair, however, tells it differently, and has always argued that much of his income is diverted to his charitable foundations. Blair’s private office claimed in 2014 that he had given £9.5 million to good causes since leaving office.
Blair has been able to use his contacts to tap big donors. His charities have been supported to the tune of millions by powerful individual and state backers; USAID, for example, gave $5.7 million to the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, which offers governance and investment advice to presidents, prime ministers and ministers there, making Blair one of the most influential men in the continent.
Blair’s recent statement did acknowledge the controversy his wealth has caused: “We built up a successful business side, though attracted a large measure of criticism for it, much of it inaccurate,” he said. “It was entirely necessary to build the business to help with the funding to grow the organizations; but it was open to misrepresentation and to criticism either that we were conflating private and public roles or that we were working in countries which aroused controversy.
“The business side has been shut down and the assets, running into many millions of pounds, gifted to the Institute.”
In office, Blair proved to be one of the most remarkable political conjurers of his age. But undoing Brexit from his gilded new power base would be the most impressive trick of all.