Tony Blair fell back to earth last week. His payment for giving the annual speech at the South Shields Customs House was fish and chips and a generous helping of the mushy peas reportedly mistaken for "avocado mousse" by Peter Mandelson. True, he was accompanied by local MP, long-time acolyte and Foreign Secretary David Miliband, but this was downmarket nevertheless.
The reward was a far cry from the lucrative returns Mr Blair is beginning to garner. The reported £237,000 for a 20-minute speech before an audience of faintly bored Chinese entrepreneurs in Guangdong province a week before was only the latest in a series of fruitful additions to the Blair bank balance.
It is almost five months since he left office, and it appears Mr Blair is becoming used to life on the outside. "It's not the same as before," he told The Shields Gazette last week. "As Prime Minister, I'd wake up and have 15 different decisions to make, but that's gone now.
"I pick and choose what to do these days, but in terms of the hours I work, it's probably the same as when I was in office."
The difference is that nowadays, many of those working hours are dedicated to funding the lavish new life that Mr Blair and his wife are creating for themselves. And, while his salary as Prime Minister was £186,429 a year, it now takes him just two high-profile speeches to earn the same amount.
Experts predict that Mr Blair, with a family and several homes to support, could easily rake in £3m by devoting barely 50 nights a year to dispensing his wisdom to wealthy audiences of business people around the world. This before he gets around to his long-awaited memoirs – for which he is being paid at least £4.5m.
The controversial speech for Guangdong Guangda Group earlier this month was not the first example of Mr Blair dancing for dollars on the world stage; it was, in fact, the third engagement of a whistle-stop tour of China organised by his new handlers. It is barely two months since the outgoing leader signed up with the Washington Speakers Bureau (WSB), but he has already criss-crossed North America for a series of speaking engagements.
He is not the first ex-prime minister to mine the rubber-chicken circuit. John Major constructed a lucrative second career, travelling the world delivering speeches to paymasters keen to hear his views on "The Changing World", "Global Terrorism" and county cricket.
Mr Blair, however, comes with an even greater reputation, and he is aware of the need to capitalise on his marketability before he becomes an old story. While WSB can claim exclusive rights to a host of global figures, including former US secretaries of state Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright, and ex-chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, Tony Blair's is the first face to appear on the bureau's website.
Potential customers wondering about the price on his head are advised "Fee Code: Contact WSB", but industry insiders expect him to command at least £75,000 a time.
Blair is the most attractive speaker to hit the circuit since Bill Clinton. His passage to China was littered with high-profile engagements, starting with the "loss leaders" of charity appearances in aid of the Clinton Global Initiative conference and a Catholic fundraiser, both in New York. The money began to roll in with speeches in California and Calgary, where tickets for his speech on "building global relations" started at £180. Three days earlier, Mr Blair spoke to an audience of 14,000 at the Women's Conference on Leadership in Long Beach, an event organised by Arnold Schwarzenegger's wife, Maria Shriver.
Conservative estimates put the take from the American leg of his debut speaking tour at around £300,000. Days after it ended, it emerged that he had signed a deal with publisher Random House to write his Downing Street memoirs – an arrangement that could earn him up to £6m.
The comparison with Clinton is a helpful one. The operation being constructed by the Blairs owes more to the afterlife enjoyed by a former US president than it does to the post-Downing Street experience of any of his predecessors.
Mr Blair is striving to ensure that his impact is felt into the future, via the Blair Foundation, an overarching institution designed to attract money for good causes. The sports foundation is an early element of the masterplan, with the faith foundation to come. Former aide Ruth Turner has been recruited as a fundraiser, and Mr Blair is believed to harbour hopes of increasing his staff beyond 20.
The scale of his ambitions was demonstrated by the disclosure that Mr Blair's work as Middle East envoy is costing British taxpayers £400,000 a year. The full cost of Mr Blair's Middle East operation, shared between the international coalition of the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia, is some £2m – and the Foreign Office has also seconded four staff to his team.
Unfortunately for the figurehead, however, his current incomings – a £64,000 prime ministerial pension and £90,500 to run his office – could not support a bloated workforce in his private affairs. The envoy role, along with the job chairing the World Economic Forum at Davos, are unpaid.
Moreover, Mr Blair now has at least five homes to support – adjoining properties in Connaught Square, two flats in Bristol and the former constituency home in Trimdon.
The excursion to China brought unwelcome attention for Mr Blair, and revealed concerns about the people he is doing business with. The uninspiring content of his speeches was the least of his worries. Guangda Group, for example, has been accused of capitalising on Mr Blair's brief visit by putting him at the forefront of their sales campaign. The company's owner, Chen Runguang, is a controversial figure who has made millions from China's booming property market. Never mind that there is a Guangda Group that proudly declares its expertise in supplying "Tear Gas (CS) Related Products".
Mr Blair will shudder at the potential damage future customers might do to his squeaky-clean image. But, with a wife, four children, five houses and a place in history to support, he can't be too choosy about where the work takes him.
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