A near miss and an own goal: With friends like these...

As Bee Gee Robin Gibb is revealed to be the latest ageing celebrity to offer Tony Blair a holiday home, what does all this say about a PM elected on an anti-sleaze platform? By Cahal Milmo
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Indy Politics

When British Airways flight 209 overshot the runway at Miami airport on Tuesday, it was not only the jumbo jet's captain cringing at the publicity.

Tony Blair saw his attempt to slip out of the country quietly for his annual festive break become a global news story.

The self-styled world's favourite airline explained that its plane had merely missed a turning on to a taxiway due to resurfacing work.

But the Prime Minister, his cover blown by some missing landing lights, was left facing a more difficult question: How had a premier once feted by Noel Gallagher as "the man" and capable of mustering a guest list from Vivienne Westwood to Harold Pinter been reduced to holidaying as a guest of a one-time prince of disco?

Downing Street confirmed that Mr Blair was on holiday but declined to provide details. So it fell to the manager of the Bee Gee Robin Gibb, whose recent ventures include performing with a quartet of X-Factor runners-up, to confirm that Mr Blair had travelled to Miami with his wife and some of their family to stay in the pop star's Florida villa.

In a terse statement, John Campbell, Gibb's co-manager, said: "It's a private holiday and it's a private arrangement. They are friends."

The 57-year-old Bee Gee had hitherto succeeded in keeping his relationship with the Prime Minister out of the headlines - despite a role as one of New Labour's more unlikely canvassers at the last election.

But Gibb's addition to the select list of the Prime Minister's friends and hosts, from fellow crooner Sir Cliff Richard to the founder of the JCB empire, is likely to be seen as another indicator of Mr Blair's fading allure.

At the zenith of its euphoric rise to power, New Labour and its leader could call on a glittering array of acolytes from Helen Mirren and Ralph Fiennes to Ruth Rendell and Alan Rickman. The high water mark was the now infamous "Cool Britannia" party at Downing Street shortly after Labour's 1997 election victory, attended by Noel and Liam Gallagher, the former Mirror editor Piers Morgan and Dame Anita Roddick. All have subsequently expressed their disillusionment with Mr Blair, with Noel Gallagher describing the bash as a "publicity stunt".

Ever since, Mr Blair has sought the company of more seasoned celebrities, fellow politicians and a cast of characters from an Italian aristocrat to a high court judge. He has stayed four times at Sir Cliff's Caribbean mansion and Cherie Blair is reported to have forged a new alliance with Sir Richard Branson, who offered a holiday on his paradise retreat, Necker Island, as a prize for a fundraising party by one her charities.

The Prime Minister's opponents were wasting little time yesterday in making the most of the latest addition to Mr Blair's inner holiday circle. Chris Grayling, the shadow Transport Secretary, said: "Another year, another celebrity holiday. In his remaining days, the Prime Minister is becoming a parody of himself. Next thing we know he will be buying a mansion in Beverly Hills next door to the Beckhams. Why can't he pay for his holidays in the normal way like the rest of us?"

Sir Cliff Richard

With its views over the turquoise seas of Barbados, the £3m villa on the secluded Sugar Hill Estate is the sort of place that needs to be visited more than once to discover its full potential. In the case of the Prime Minister, Sir Cliff's Caribbean hideaway is a place so full of mystery that it has required four separate visits since 2003. Downing Street points out that the Blairs always pay for their flights and make a donation to charity equivalent to the rental of the villa, although the sums involved have never been revealed. Its God-fearing owner keeps discreetly quiet about the arrangement.

Robin Gibb

His status as a friend of the Prime Minister was known by very few until now. The 57-year-old disco star, who was born on the Isle of Man, first took the stage with Mr Blair during the 2005 general election at a rally in Huddersfield. Gibb was the warm-up act for the former guitarist of the Ugly Rumours (Mr Blair's band while at Oxford). Gibb said: "It's not enough to feel sure, you have got to make sure. It is imperative and it is vital. It is not just your future, it is your children's future. So get out and vote on May 5 and vote Labour."

In response, Mr Blair said: "I was completely star-struck tonight. I met one of my heroes - Robin Gibb."

Only cynics would suggested that he then added out of ear shot: "Any chance we can borrow the villa?"

Prince Girolamo Strozzi

The allure of old money has not been lost on Britain's first family. Prince Girolamo, an aristocratic law professor and scion of one of Italy's oldest noble dynasties, has hosted the Blair entourage at least three times at the 16th-century Villa Cusona - his mansion near the Tuscan hill town of San Gimignano.

Such was the size of the Blair party in 1998, including not only the family but also a nanny, Mrs Blair's mother, four secretaries and two bodyguards, it was rumoured that the Strozzis moved out. The Blairs and Strozzis can boast a long friendship predating the Prime Minister's arrival in Downing Street. The prince has dined twice at Chequers and his daughters, Natalia, a ballet dancer, and Irina have been guests at No 10.

Silvio Berlusconi

When it comes to the full flourish of Italian hospitality, the media billionaire Silvio Berlusconi proved a hard act to follow in 2004 when he hosted Tony and Cherie for two days at his Sardinian villa. Mr Berlusconi, at the time still Italian Prime Minister, set the theatrical tone for the visit by greeting his guests wearing a bandana, apparently to conceal a recent hair transplant. Such was the businessman turned statesman's largesse, he had a tunnel built at Villa Certosa, his 27-room holiday retreat, to conceal guests from photographers' telephoto lenses while leaving the private landing stage.

Downing Street insisted that the two leaders spent much of the visit discussing Iraq, Sudan and Italian-British business deals. There was enough time, however, for a quick game of five-a-side football in which Mr Berlusconi learnt the price of clashing with his British counterpart. The Italian had to see a specialist for acute pain in his left knee from an injury suffered when Mr Blair ran into him during the match.

Sir Martin Keene

A judge in the Court of Appeal and longstanding family friend, Sir Martin had been relied on by the Blairs to provide an understated summer retreat in his 12th-century chateau for nearly a decade.

Villagers in Saint Martin d'Oydes, in the Ariege region of southern France, speak fondly of "Tony" popping in on the neighbours with baby Leo in his arms. But the arrangement came to an abrupt end in 2003 when the Blairs decided instead to go to Sir Cliff's villa in Barbados, sparking claims in the French media that it was a calculated snub following Franco-British tensions over the war in Iraq.

Others might point out that it takes more than a diplomatic rift to change the Blairs' holiday plans. In 2001, they returned to Saint Martin despite the revelation that Sir Martin's house had been used as a set for three pornographic films. The judge was said to have been "appalled" after his home was rented out unbeknown to him to the film-makers by a letting agency.

Geoffrey Robinson

When businessman, friend and government minister offered Mr Blair and his family the use of his villa on a 10-acre estate in Tuscany in 1997, it seemed the perfect holiday package. The Paymaster General would accept no payment and the Queen's Flight was available.

Unfortunately, the glow from the fortnight near San Gimignano rapidly faded when Mr Blair was forced to accept his host's resignation over the revelation that he had made an undisclosed loan of £373,000 to the Trade and Industry Secretary, Peter Mandelson, to buy a house.

News of the interest-free loan emerged while Mr Robinson's business interests were under investigation by the DTI. Mr Blair learnt his lesson. Downing Street announced Mr Blair would pay for his own flights and make donations in lieu of the rent for his holiday accommodation.

Charles Powell

As one of Margaret Thatcher's most trusted advisers, Lord Powell is very familiar with the peaks and troughs of political power.

Unsurprisingly, his company - and that of his formidable Italian wife, Carla, has been sought by the Blairs on several occasions.

The Powells own a villa some 25 miles from Rome which was visited by Mr Blair when he was still Leader of the Opposition.

In 2003, Mrs Blair returned to the villa with her daughter, Kathryn, to be hosted by Carla and visit the local thermal baths.

Lady Powell, who once described herself as Margaret Thatcher's "wife" and advised her on her wardrobe, has never shied from letting the current incumbent of No 10 know what she thinks.

She once accused Mr Blair and his Government of leading Britain in a "descent into moral mediocrity".

Massimo Carello

The scion of a family of Turin industrialists, Dr Carello met the Blairs, ironically, while they were enjoying the hospitality of Sir Cliff Richard in Barbados in 2004.

The two families enjoyed a sumptuous meal together in a beachside restaurant, for which Dr Carello is reported to have picked up the £600 bill.

A former Fiat executive, Dr Carello, 57, has since hosted Cherie Blair and Leo at his £10m villa while they on a visit to the Winter Olympics in Turin.

Dr Carello and his wife, Sara, have become close to the Blairs since Mrs Carello was introduced to Cherie through their mutual work with a cancer charity, Sargent Cancer Care for Children.

Dr Carello has expressed forthright views on a number of political issues. In 2002, he was one of seven senior businessman who wrote a public letter warning that Britain faced "slow economic decline" if it did not join the euro.

Sir Anthony Bamford

There can be very few £5m beach huts in the world but that is how Sir Anthony's villa in Barbados was described when it was used by Mr Blair and his family this summer.

The founder of the JCB digger empire, Sir Anthony has become friend and patron to many in a position of influence, including David Cameron, whose party received a £1m donation last year.

The Blairs have made use of Heron Bay House - close to Sir Cliff Richard's villa on the Caribbean island - for two years to visit the stunning Platinum Coast.

Sir Anthony's boatman, Walter, has been available to skipper his launch, Boston Whaler, with the Blairs on board. It was on this holiday that they met Dr Carello.

Mr Blair has also displayed his fondness for the ukelele while on Sir Anthony's estate. He reputedly played Bajan folk songs on one of his visits.

Vannino Chiti

As president of Tuscany and an adept regional politician looking for some publicity for his region, Mr Chiti was the originator of Mr Blair's greatest holiday public relations fiasco.

After the Blairs accepted an invitation to stay at the state-owned Villa il Gombo in 1999, it emerged that £500,000 of Tuscan taxpayers' money had been spent on its refurbishment.

The two-week stay in the 1950s modernist lodge on a nature reserve, which once hosted Tito, became mired in further controversy when it was announced a public beach would be shut to allow the Blairs privacy.

The decision was eventually reversed but not before the Communist mayor of the nearest town, Viareggio, had capitalised on the issue by raising a banner with the message: "Tony Blair you are not welcome. Go on Holyday [sic] to Kosovo."

Despite a pledge from Mr Blair to donate the cost of renting the villa, £3,000, to a local charity, the episode was enough to taint the Prime Minister's reputation. The Italian media nicknamed him Il Scroccone - The Scrounger.