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Dominic Lawson: Why can't an ex-PM try to make some money?


A former Prime Minister has for some years played a significant paid advisory role for a secretive Washington DC-based private equity firm with annual revenues of over $4bn. The Carlyle Group has also signed up an impressive list of former US politicians including President George HW Bush; and until 2005 its chairman emeritus was a former CIA deputy director, Frank Carlucci. Carlyle, perhaps not coincidentally, has made highly successful forays into the armaments business, such as its purchase of a controlling interest (since sold) in United Defense, supplier of vertical missile launch systems.

The ex-Prime Minister in question is Sir John Major – which perhaps explains why no one has been jumping up and down. Sir John is not a man about whom the British public has very strong feelings.

The same cannot be said about Tony Blair. To say that he is hated – by a vocal minority – would be a gross understatement. The word "hate" does not do justice to the violence of this minority's gibbering rage at even the fact of his continued existence. Thus it was a shrewd move of Channel 4's Dispatches to commission the indefatigable Peter Oborne to make a documentary about Mr Blair's globe-trotting business dealings.

Oborne's programme, broadcast last night, investigated Blair's success in persuading the Israeli government to open up radio frequencies so that the Qatari-owned phone company Wataniya Mobile could operate in the West Bank. According to the programme, this boon to the inhabitants of the West Bank is tainted because the US investment bank JP Morgan had made a $2bn loan to Wataniya Mobile's parent company, and therefore stands to gain from Mr Blair's twisting of the Israeli government's arm – and Mr Blair has a paid advisory role with JP Morgan.

The response of Mr Blair's office was that the former PM had no idea about JP Morgan's link with Wataniya Mobile, and that "Tony Blair has advocated for the Wataniya project at the direct request of the Palestinians... [it] represented the largest single direct foreign investment into the Palestinian Authority". His office added that claims of a conflict of interest were "defamatory".

There is no doubt that Mr Blair has, since his ousting from Downing Street, made a lot of money, enabling him and his wife to accumulate a number of properties, worth – according to the perpetually outraged Daily Mail – around £15m. It is one of the peculiarities of the well-remunerated Blairs' predicament that their new-found wealth is a cause of apoplexy on both the right and the left. Those on the right tend to think that there is something inherently hypocritical about an ex-Labour Party leader making a lot of money in retirement; they have no problem with Sir John planning to buy a £3.5m Westminster apartment with the help of fees from the Carlyle Group.

On the left, the fury is for a different reason, although they also find the whole idea of people becoming rich as inherently unjust. They can't forgive Blair for aligning the Labour Party with the forces of capitalism; and they regard his joining with the Americans in the invasion of Iraq as nothing less than a war crime, for which he should be prosecuted at The Hague.

On a more human level, I can understand the ex-PM's frenetic combination of money-making and peace-mongering. His father suffered a catastrophic stroke at the age of 40 and Tony Blair himself has a dicky heart. It seems psychologically obvious that he feels he has not much time left to do everything he still wants to achieve – and he has always been ferociously ambitious.

In previous years, when prime ministers left Downing Street at a more advanced age, such issues tended not to arise. By the time Jim Callaghan or Harold Wilson left office, they were ready for the gentle slopes of retirement, all passions (and ambition) spent. Yet Tony Blair – and, indeed, Gordon Brown – are still relatively young men with much to prove, not least to themselves. It is unreasonable to expect them to slink into obscurity; and if they strive to make their families financially secure, how does that harm us?