Our freeloading leaders

Why can't our so-called betters take the easy option and fork out for their own holidays?
Click to follow
PETER SARSTEDT, thou shouldst be living at this hour. Oh, it turns out the singer-songwriter still is - one is never sure with Sixties icons. But there he was on TV the other night, earnestly dissecting his ode to Eurotrash, "Where do you go to my lovely?" which runs: "Your name is heard in high places/You know the Aga Khan/He gave you a racehorse for Christmas/And you keep it just for fun, for a laugh, ha ha ha.

Sophia Loren was said to be the model for Sarstedt's Marie-Claire, the evenly sun-tanned, dry-lipped Napolean-brandy-sipping jet-setter. In those days, Eurotrash were not so much envied as scorned as a class parasitic on one another - a well tailored waste of space. When Princess Margaret became the first royal to join Roddy Llewellyn and the professional timewasters of the Mustique set, Britain pursed its lips in disapproval and put the taste lapse down to the effects of a broken heart.

But Eurotrash has undergone a vast expansion: it now includes the entire British Royal Family and the Prime Minister, both of whom are taking their summer holidays in grand style at someone else's expense. Our joint first families seem to be living up to their old New Yorker caricature as over- enthusiastic consumers of others' luxury. Both have been seduced by the lure of other people's largess. Both are denting their images in the process.

Mr Blair has stubbornly refused to fork out for his own summer holiday, and every year that he has relied on freebies has brought trouble. First, he accepted Geoffrey Robinson's villa, a favour which feeds the businessman's sense of injustice at being dismissed from the Government after he placed his wealth at New Labour's disposal. These resentments are likely to feature heavily in his autobiographical reckoning later this year. Last year, the Prime Minister lighted on Prince Girolamo Strozzi's renaissance palace. The Prince was miffed to be banished to the stables and Mr Blair ended up fending off completely avoidable criticism.

This year, La Nazione anointed him "the scrounger". The beach around the house has been sealed off to protect the privacy of the Blairs at play: and then sealed on again to forestall local protest at the inconvenience. Once a public figure has allowed himself to become the target of such easy carping, everything - from a local restaurant which stops serving at 6pm to feed the hungry to the Leaning Tower of Pisa having to open specially so that Mr Blair could enjoy the forgotten sensation of something leaning to the left - becomes a big deal.

Italy has disgruntled Communists and grumpy locals by the bucketful who are happy to record their unhappiness at Mr Blair's holiday being partially funded by the Italian taxpayer.

The next thing. Mr Blair has to let it be known that he is making generous donations to a local hospital. It is an endless cycle of damage followed by damage limitation, followed by more damage. Ann Widdecombe - the Vinnie Jones of Tory boot-boys, indeed the only Tory boot boy presently functioning - piles in ranting about "Phoney Tony", the epithet the Conservatives are now using to raise suspicions that Mr Blair is too good and slick to be entirely true. The President of Tuscany has to be defended as an "old friend" of the Blairs. How old, exactly? An air of fake intimacy pervades the whole business.

Sarstedt knew it when he saw it, singing: "So look into my face, Marie- Claire/And remember just who you are..."

I confess to being mystified about why Mr Blair, who is extremely shrewd when it comes to preserving his personal capital, should have let himself in for all this grief when he could have spent a couple of thousand pounds of his own money hiring a secluded villa somewhere, as lots of similarly prosperous double-income families do every summer.

Where is Alastair Campbell, his media praetorian guard with a nose for a populist news story honed by years at The Mirror, when Mr Blair makes his holiday plans? Did it not occur to him to advise Tony and Cherie to keep it simple this time?

Mr Blair badly needs a rest after the exertions of the last few months, but he he has not made it easy on himself by opting for the most high- profile holiday imaginable, complete with RAF jet and scores of Italian security staff. When Chancellor Schroder, a man whose taste for high living is much mocked in Germany, can manage to holiday with his family for pounds 100 a night further down the coast, the Blairite Tuscan excess looks even more unfortunate. On this occasion, Herr Schroder appears to have thought about the impression his behaviour would create, both at home and in Italy, while Mr Blair did not.

At least he can comfort himself with the thought that his popularity is in no immediate peril. Prince Charles has more to worry about as he tries to haul the royals out of the post-Diana doldrums. Massive strategic effort has gone into rescuing the Royal Family from the perception that it is a distant, privileged clan, out of touch and facing a steady extinction. So what does he do but set off with Camilla Parker Bowles, her children, the young princes and a clutch of debs to float around the Aegean on a yacht that is owned by Greek tycoon John Latsis.

It doesn't matter a jot to most of us that he takes Camilla with him. A lot of disingenuous white noise has been generated about the "constitutional implications" of their relationship. These are big words hiding a false prurience. Before he becomes King, he will probably marry Camilla. A form of title will be found which satisfies protocol. By then, Diana will have become a hazy, gilded memory. It is not yet two years since her death and visitors have bored of the pilgrimage to the ghastly shrine at Althorp. All prophesies of the monarchy being unable to survive her death assumed that the hysteria would last, whereas it is, by its very nature evanescent.

But this happy state will only prove stable it the family finds a way of life and a role within the devolved United Kingdom which chimes with the public's altered expectations of a more responsive monarchy. Prince Charles' summer holiday is a particularly unfitting throwback to the days of Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson's lavish self-indulgence. The lack of understatement and the fact that it is all paid for by a foreign benefactor sit uneasily with the notion of a more restrained and sensitive monarchy.

There is a jolting, uneven quality to the family's attempts to reinvent itself. The Queen starts riding around in taxis and drinking cuppas with old ladies in the East End while Prince Philip, whose mind remains steeped in the casually ignorant racialism of his youth, is beyond redemption and can only be regarded as an asset on the days he is kept indoors. It is too late for them to embrace an altered role with any conviction. Their children should be more sensitive. Yet an otherwise glowing profile of Prince Andrew in Tatler points out that he expects others to pay his share in restaurants, because carrying money would be one modernisation too far. Prince Charles has a sizeable income from the Duchy of Cornwall to fund his rest and relaxation. Why does he need to take the Latsis yacht?

But we can't have it all ways. Prince Edward got it in the neck when he flew off to LA to flog some tacky-sounding documentaries made by his company, Ardent Productions, including a biopic of the Queen Mother's life turned down for British TV. Ardent exists solely because of Edward's connections, so it is pointless to jeer at him for trading on them. He does, at least seem to have a healthy instinct to earn some of his own money.

In the creeping culture of freebie dependency, that really should be a subject for congratulation - not for mockery.