Tony, we couldn’t agree more. We love you in megawatt-tanned party mode, hobnobbing with the great and the good; and we love that you have made yourself the (very expensive) international go-to man when sheikhs and despots cant quite come to an agreement about how to spend their billions. But is it really possible to be that person and the world’s most high-profile peace envoy? By James Brabazon
Kuwait City, 26 January 2009. The desert air is cool and inviting. Sea mist clings to the steel-and-glass-lined avenues of this tiny Gulf state, fabulously rich in oil. Its streets are busy with people who are heading to work on a Monday morning.
Among them is Tony Blair, not yet two years out of office. He has an audience with Kuwait’s ruler, His Highness the Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad, at the Seif Palace. Mr Blair is here in his capacity as the world’s most prominent peace envoy, a position bestowed on him by the Quartet (a diplomatic bloc established by the EU, Russia, the US and the UN) the day he left Downing Street. His mission? To help build peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Yet on this occasion — at least his third visit since leaving office — Tony Blair is accompanied not only by a retinue of diplomats but also by Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff when he was PM, and, from early 2009, a senior business adviser to Blair’s newly formed commercial consultancy, Tony Blair Associates (TBA). Less than a year after the meeting, the Emir handed Blair his first major contract: Kuwait Vision 2035, a commission to draw up and implement a review of Kuwait’s economy — for a widely quoted fee of £27m. The timings could be pure coincidence. Blair insists that there is no conflict of interest between his pro bono work as an envoy in the Middle East and his commercial activities. ‘We hold ourselves to the gold standard in this respect,’ his team told Tatler.
But the Kuwait contract was not a one-off — it was a substantial step on a journey that has taken Tony Blair from paid public service to massive personal wealth. Of course, capitalising on kudos and contacts isn’t new for prime ministers and presidents. As far back as the 18th century, since the days of Britain’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, they have been making money in and out of office. But since leaving Downing Street, Blair has earned more than any other former British prime minister. From the limited accounts that he is required to publish, Tatler has calculated that, in the first five years after he left office, his companies received perhaps as much as £40,708,000. (Blair’s office responded that this figure was ‘way off what he had earned since leaving office, but declined to disclose how much his companies had received.) His personal wealth is now estimated at between £30m and £60m. Which distinguishes him colossally from his post-war Labour predecessors: the austere Clement Attlee, the wily Harold Wilson and the bucolic James Callaghan. But Tony Blair was never a Labour leader; he was a New Labour leader. And it was Lord Mandelson, Mr Blair’s election-campaign director and former secretary of state for trade and industry, who, in 1998, explained that Blair’s Labour party was ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’. It is a philosophy that Tony Blair has apparently made his own. And very successfully too. ‘There are always going to be times when some people do better than others in terms of financial wealth — that’s the way the world goes,’ he recently mused to a national newspaper.
Born in Edinburgh in 1953, the future prime minister got his first taste of politics on his father Leo’s knee — Leo being a barrister and, at one time, chairman of the Durham Conservative Association, which was a huge achievement for the illegitimate son of two travelling entertainers who gave him up for fostering. Now a family of means, the Blairs sent their eldest son to Fettes, Scotland’s leading boarding school. Although Blairs old housemaster, Eric Anderson, described him as ‘maddening at times, full of himself and very argumentative’, Tony Blair also cut a confident, deeply charismatic figure from the outset, winning the affections of Amanda Stuart — daughter of Lord Mackenzie-Stuart, and the first girl to be admitted to Fettes — over the rival attentions of440 other boys.
Before heading to St John’s College, Oxford — where a second-class degree in law and the frontman’s role in student band Ugly Rumours awaited — Blair stacked shelves at an upmarket food hall in Kensington to pay his way. After Oxford, he met fellow barrister Cherie Booth at the chambers where they worked in London. They married in 1980, setting up home in a £40,000 end-of-terrace house in Hackney, north-east London, and immersing themselves in Labour politics.
Now the Blairs have eight houses — among them a £5.75m mansion in Buckinghamshire and a cottage nearby bought for £600,000 in February of this year — that ate thought to be worth £21 m. He also has some very stellar friends, including Sir Elton John, Rupert Murdoch, Wendi Deng, Bono and Bill Clinton; and he can often be seen at ritzy parties like Sir David Tang’s Chinese New Year party in February of this year, and the ARK charity gala hosted by Arpad Busson and Uma Thurman in 2011.
These days, Tony Blair’s £193,000-a-year salary as prime minister looks increasingly like pocket change. After-dinner speeches and paid public appearances earned him a reported £9m in the years immediately after leaving office; he has reportedly been paid a six-figure sum by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy for promoting their luxury brands; he gets another £500,000 a year from Switzerland’s Zurich Insurance Group for advice on international politics and climate change; and he pockets a further £2.5m a year as a senior adviser to investment bank JP Morgan — a deal he struck less than a year after leaving Downing Street.
Meanwhile, his role as a peace envoy in the Middle East ensures international cachet — and the opportunity to continue cultivating relationships with leaders in the Gulf, many of whom he met and worked with during his decade in power. But how does he do it? What kind of personal alchemy is at play here? According to New York Magazine writer Jennifer Senior, who interviewed Blair in 2008, ‘He’s mild, light on his feet; he disarms not with seduction but with extreme agreeableness… The first time we meet… he pulls open the door and walks in before his aide does. There’s no warning, no fanfare, no nothing. Just… boom, there he is.’
Just as important are his negotiating prowess and powers of persuasion. Known for seeing conflict in clear, rational terms, he’s deft at isolating common threads when considering international problems. A leitmotif in many of his discussions, especially about the Middle East,’ Senior continued, ‘is that having an agreed-on method for solving a problem is more important than having a shared vision of the solution.’
One deal that has acquired almost legendary status happened last September, when Blair helped seal the pact that led to the biggest merger agreement of 2012: the mining giant Glencore International’s £23bn takeover of the Anglo-Swiss mining conglomerate Xstrata. Blair was called in at the last minute to help resolve the deadlocked negotiations at Claridge’s. This apparently baffled even him: At one point, as the negotiations got under way, [Blair] turned to one of the bankers in the room and said, «I’ve got absolutely no idea why I’m here,'» a City source reported.
But his last-minute intervention saved his client JP Morgan — one of the banks working for Xstrata — millions of dollars in ‘break fees’, as well as earning Blair a reported £660,000 for just under three hours’ work.
It may have helped that Xstrata’s second largest shareholding is controlled by the Qatari royal family, and that the agreement of the then prime minister of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber bin Muhammad AlThani, was instrumental to the deal going through. Blair is said to be a close personal friend of the sheikh, who, in his dual capacity as Qatari foreign minister, is a key figure with whom Blair has to engage in his role as peace envoy. It’s a perfect illustration of the way politics and business mesh in Blairs world — and one reason why it can confidently be predicted that the future for Blair and his associates is rosy. Last year, for instance, Blair’s Government Advisory Practice, or GAR pulled in a contract with the government of Sao Paulo worth almost £4m a year.
Tony Blair Associates is not a corporate entity in its own right: it’s the name of the umbrella organisation for all his commercial activities. Blair’s financial structures are incredibly complex, albeit entirely legitimate, and comprise a minimum of eight separate companies that handle his business affairs. The existence of his Government Advisory Practice — a consultancy, under the TBA umbrella, that appears to manage his government contracts — has only recently come to light. At the root of these structures are two financial entities known as limited partnerships, or LPs — Firerush Ventures No. 3 LP and Windrush Ventures No. 3 LP. (Windrush Ventures No. 1 Ltd was incorporated on 27 June 2007, the same day Tony Blair quit Downing Street.) Limited partnerships are not, by law, required to publish their accounts. AndTBA’s public profile is almost as invisible as its accounts. Blair’s extensive website only mentions TBA once (and the GAP not at all) and the Office of Tony Blair (rent: £550,000 a year), opposite the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, doesn’t even have a name on the door.
Transparency in government — enshrined in law by Blair’s administration under the Freedom of Information Act — was seen by his party as a wholly admirable sea change in holding those in power accountable to the electorate. Blair doesn’t agree. It is an enormous ‘blunder’, he now says. He summed his feelings up in his autobiography: ‘Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it… Information is neither sought because the journalist is curious to know, nor given to bestow knowledge on «the people». It’s used as a weapon.’
Many of the people with whom Blair does business would concur. One example is the Kuwait Vision 2035 deal. Blair’s office said the fee agreed ‘at that time’ for the consultancy was a great deal less than £27m, but declined to confirm the ongoing value of the contract. Furthermore, because TBA’s contract in Kuwait was overseen by the Emir’s office, it was exempt from scrutiny by Kuwait’s financial regulatory body. At Kuwait’s request, the UK’s Advisory Committee on Business Appointments withheld disclosure of TBA’s contract from the British public for over two years. The full contents of the report have never been made publicly available.
The secrecy surrounding Kuwait Vision 2035 was also a feature of subsequent deals. Just down the coast from Kuwait is the rich Arab emirate of Abu Dhabi. The Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, is also a TBA client. Blair visits Abu Dhabi regularly in his official capacity as peace envoy — and also provides ‘global strategic advice’ to the Crown Prince’s sovereign wealth fund, Mubadala, for a reported (but, typically, unconfirmed) fee of a year. As of this year, Blair is also a paid adviser to the Abu Dhabi Executive Affairs Authority — helping, for example, to arrange deals with China Investment Corporation, Beijing’s £321bn sovereign wealth fund.
Mubadala operates outside the Gulf as well. Amongst other places, it’s to be found in Kazakhstan, where its subsidiary Mubadala Petroleum — an oil and gas exploration and production company — set up shop in 2009. Kazakhstan is an under-reported despotate that is home to the authoritarian regime of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, an old-style blood-and-iron dictator who emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 2011, his forces fired live ammunition into crowds of demonstrators, killing more than a dozen unarmed protesters. But Kazakhstan is also home to around 30 billion barrels’ worth of oil reserves. Since the early spring of 2011, Blair’s team of consultants has been advising the Kazakhstan government on decentralisation, electoral procedures and judicial practices, in return for which TBA — most probably through the GAP — is paid a reported (if again unconfirmed) fee of up to £8m a year.
Blair has spoken publicly about the Kazakh regime’s human rights record. ‘I don’t dismiss the human rights stuff,’ he said. ‘These are points we make. There’s a whole new generation of administrators there who are reformers, and we’re working with them.’
A change of administration anytime soon is unlikely. An Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe observation mission concluded that the parliamentary elections held on 15 January 2012 did not meet ‘fundamental principles of democratic elections’.