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Blair: Don't close beach just for me

EVER SENSITIVE to the opinion polls and, of course, the wishes of the people, Tony Blair yesterday decided that he did not, after all, need the beach near his Tuscan holiday home to be closed to the public.

There was an outcry earlier this week when it was announced that a stretch of beach at San Rossore, near Pisa, was to be closed so the Prime Minister and his family could enjoy their holiday, which began yesterday, in private.

They are staying at the Villa Gombo, which was the holiday home of several Italian presidents and was offered to them free of charge by a friend Vannino Chiti, the regional president for Tuscany. The villa has its own 200 metre wide beach but several miles of coastline on either side were to be closed.

Local residents were furious at being denied their favourite sunbathing and swimming spots and fishermen had been told to haul in their catches elsewhere during the Blair's one week stay.

The Italian port authorities said that it was for security reasons, although other sources hinted that it was more to do with Cherie Blair's fear of being spotted, in her swimming costume, by the paparazzi.

But Downing Street announced in a statement yesterday that the Italian authorities had agreed to lift the ban allowing the public onto the foreshore. "At the personal request of the Prime Minister, the Italian authorities have lifted the restrictions on access to the beaches at and around the site of his family holiday home," said a spokesman.

"He thanked the Italian police for their careful consideration of his security needs but said he did not wish anybody to be prevented from visiting beaches they normally use."

Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, immediately leapt into the fray, accusing the Prime Minister of double standards. "He likes to pretend he's everyone's friend - standing up for the many and not the few," she said.

"Now on holiday it is an entirely different story. Who else in Britain could expect their own private beach. If it wasn't for local Tuscan residents up in arms that they can't use their beach this summer and the Italian Communist Party whipping up a storm, Phoney Tony could go on enjoying his holiday safe in the knowledge that his monumental double standards would never get back to the voters at home. Now he is trying to grab the credit for the beach being given back to the public."

Earlier in the week Marcella Monicelli, whose 34-year-old handicapped son, Christiano, regularly swims on the beach said: "My son vitally needs the exercise. To block off [the]beach for Tony Blair's family is obscene and shameful. Blair is welcome but I don't see why he can't mix with us."

Mr Blair's holiday is also being dogged by threats of protest action by local communist groups. They threatened to demonstrate over Mr Blair's "warmongering stance" during the war in Kosovo.