Will Blair pay the price for his discounted luxury baubles?

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The Independent Online

Of all the flamboyant characters to break bread with Tony and Cherie Blair, few have been quite so hospitable as the Italian President, Silvio Berlusconi.

In recent years, he has given the Blairs 18 luxury watches, four necklaces, two bracelets, two sets of earrings, two rings, a clock and a sports bag, according to Downing Street's official list of ministerial gifts.

Now Chris Grayling, the Shadow leader of the House who brought down David Blunkett, is investigating the gifts as part of a campaign against Labour sleaze.

Under official guidelines, Mr Blair is allowed to exercise a "right to buy" official presents at a price determined by the Cabinet Office. Last year, he bought two of the watches for £175 each.

Since this is rather less than Mr Berlusconi's usual gifts cost - in 2003, he gave George Bush a £6,750 Franck Muller watch - Grayling is wondering how Labour valued Mr Blair's gifts.

David Davies, a backbench MP working under his command, has written to No 10 asking for details about the brands of the watches and how they were valued.

"Tony Blair appears to be acting more like the winner of Supermarket Sweep than a world statesman," says Davies. "I will be intrigued as to what sort of a deal he got on these luxury baubles."

* Stella McCartney was hot property last week, after a range of clothes she designed for cheapie retailer H&M caused a stampede in Oxford Street.

One can but wonder how this "coup" went down with McCartney's long-suffering employer, Gucci, who have been bankrolling her career over recent years.

Last Christmas, it emerged that Stella's fashion label had filed losses of £3.95m, bringing its accumulated losses to £11.2m. Gucci, who've committed £25m to the firm, don't expect to see it break even until 2007.

"Given the amount of money they're pumping in, it must stick in the throat to see Stella ramping up a rival store's profits," reports one pundit.

"She even admitted last week that the clothes being sold in H&M are 'pretty much the same' as the ones in her signature collection. Gucci are effectively being undercut by their own designer."

Thoughts will soon be concentrated: McCartney's latest accounts are due at Companies House by the end of this month.

* There is sadness for David Suchet, the actor who, as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, cultivated one of the most famous moustaches in showbusiness. Despite being a favourite to play the next Bond villain, he's been passed-over in favour of a younger model.

"I saw the speculation about getting the part when I was checking some of my fan sites on the internet," he tells me.

"Sadly, it's untrue. I'd love to play a Bond villain, but the word is that they're going for someone younger. I'm short and dark so I often get cast in menacing roles. But my real ambition is to be a cowboy."

A shame. But touching to learn that Suchet - speaking at the first night of the West End play I am My Own Wife - uses the internet to follow his considerable fan base.

* There's a footnote to my recent item on toilet facilities at Britain's poshest literary establishment, the London Library in St James's Square.

Investigative journalists at the Evening Standard have identified the author of a detailed complaint - written in the members' suggestion book, and recently repeated here - about the failure of the men's lavatory to flush properly.

They say the comment, "as a result, much time is taken up in inspecting and disposing of other members' faeces", was recorded in the inky scrawl of Alan Bennett.

This has the ring of truth. Not only has Bennett failed to either confirm or deny the allegation, he's also got a lavatorial sense of humour.

His play Kafka's Dick reminds us: "Shepherd's pie floating in the toilet. Show me a better way to break a mother's heart."

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