Dear John, The weather's fine and the Chianti is good. Why are people worrying about where I go on holiday?

France, Tuscany or the British Isles - politicians have their image to consider, says Rebecca Fowler
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The Independent Online
As Tony Blair rose for breakfast in the Chiantishire sunshine yesterday morning and stepped into something summery, having left his cardigan at home in Islington, at least for a moment it must have seemed the perfect setting for a political holiday.

Here they were with the kids in the villa of Geoffrey Robinson, the millionaire owner of the socialist New Statesman, and a bunch of devoted New Labour followers. There was undoubtedly some lively banter over Clare Short's attack on his leadership and the "dark forces" surrounding him, but not too much. This was a holiday.

So what if there was a hint of the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie to the place. Since the family holiday in the Butlin's resort at Bognor Regis last year, he has left behind any pretensions of courting the working classes through his choice of resort.

But the Blairs' critics thought otherwise. Rather than holidaying with the masses, the family has been accused of living it up, drinking fine wines, and bathing in a private swimming pool as removed as a royal holiday from socialism.

When the Italian press arrived on the doorstep, Mr Blair dismissed attacks on his "middle-class" choice of holiday destination, although he resisted suggesting of his detractors: "Let them eat pasta". Instead Mr Blair reportedly said: "If we don't free ourselves of all this ideological weight, we won't be able to change the country".

He also ventured to his uninvited guests: "You're not British journalists by any chance, are you? Tuscany? I love it. There's so much history, culture, the weather's great and I like the wine."

According to Sir Bernard Ingham, there is no perfect holiday destination for political leaders, and they should not be restricted in their choice - with the obvious exceptions of dictatorships. But he was still concerned by Chiantishire.

Sir Bernard, who is going on holiday to the Baltics this year, said: "They should go anywhere they like, but I think Chiantishire is a particularly pretentious choice. It's where all the twits go, and I wouldn't be seen dead there. I would have reservations about going to Europe at all, the thought of those beaches revolts me."

There was no shortage of British comrades for the Blairs. Peter Mandelson, Mr Blair's adviser, has also headed for the joys of spaghetti and ice cream in the Italian hills, as has Chris Smith, Labour's spokesman for health. And, as Mr Blair pointed out, this was once a favourite spot of the Kinnocks.

It is a far cry from the starker sojourns of Old Labour, when Lord Wilson made, pipe in hand, for the Scilly Isles each year. The Thatchers also opted for the less swanky hotspots, including Cornwall.

The choice of holiday for the new generation of MPs during the 11-week parliamentary recess is a cross-party affair, with a clear division between those who opt for the champagne of France and those more comfortable with Chianti in Tuscany.

The Majors are leading the French team this week, at the white villa of the carpet millionaire, Lord Harris of Peckham, on the Riviera at Mougins, where Picasso retired and where Norma was spotted wearing a bikini earlier this year.

Among the other politicians who have opted for France is Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats, who will set off today with his family for their holiday home in Burgundy; Margaret Beckett is on a caravan site with her family; John Horam opted for a cycling holiday; and Peter Lilley is visiting both France and Italy.

Those who have gone out on a limb include Virginia Bottomley, who will go with her family to the Isle of Wight, where the Bottomleys are famous for organising family sports; and Ron Davies, who plans to travel around Wales where he may bump into Ann Widdecombe on a five-day walking holiday.

It must be a comfort for the Blairs to know John Prescott is holding the fort, although his turn to go on holiday will come. Mr Prescott, who as a "working-class" lad went on holidays to Scarborough with his father for the rail union conferences, has also spread his wings - last September he went to the Caribbean.

But the parties have not left politics behind in the holiday season. Mr Prescott launched a summer advertising campaign last week warning against "Tory lies", which will greet holiday makers at airports at home and abroad, but not in Chiantishire.

The Blairs may be relieved to know a Tory plan for a counter campaign was dropped. "People on holiday do not want party politics thrust down their throats," a source reportedly said. As Mr Blair closed his copy of the New Statesman he probably could not agree more.