Around the world with Tony Blair (courtesy, as usual, of his many friends in high places)

Late availability: 26-day luxury holiday package including hillside mansion in Barbados belonging to God-fearing crooner, trip to Olympic Games and week-long sojourn in two high-security Italian villas. Price: free, subject to being British Prime Minister.

As a man who has found himself the subject of virulent criticism for accepting free holiday accommodation from Italian dukes and Egyptian ministers over the years, some might have expected Tony Blair to slim down his vacation itinerary nine months before he is likely to seek re-election.

But the Prime Minister yesterday found himself under fresh assault from his critics after it emerged that his family holiday this year will cover two continents, four venues and three mansions, including Sir Cliff Richard's Caribbean retreat and the new Sardinian hideaway of the billionaire Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The three-and-a-half week long trip brings to at least 18 the number of occasions since 1997 when the Blair family has enjoyed the hospitality of well-connected friends who do not expect to be paid for hosting the package tour-shy occupants of No 10.

Unofficial estimates put the cost of the Blairs' 2004 grand tour into six figures, including 18 days at Sir Cliff's £3m mansion on the select Sugar Hill Estate, where the family have enjoyed speedboat rides and suffered the traditional scrutiny of their beachwear through the long lenses of the paparazzi.

Downing Street, which has learnt its lesson after a disastrous Blair holiday in a state-owned villa in Tuscany five years ago cost Italian taxpayers £20,000 and led to the Prime Minister being described as a "scrounger", was yesterday at pains to underline that the Blairs have paid for their own flights and will make donations to charity instead of paying rent in their lodgings.

The Prime Minister's office declined to discuss whether the donations would match the market value of their accommodation. A spokesman said: "As in previous years, they will make donations in lieu of rent for their accommodation. We would not go into the size of the donation. The Prime Minister's holiday is a private matter."

After returning from Barbados this week, Mr Blair and his wife, Cherie, who between them earn more than £350,000 a year, are expected to travel to Athens for the opening of the Olympic Games on Friday. Downing Street sources yesterday played down claims that the couple would be staying on the Queen Mary 2 in a £2,000-night suite with butler service.

They are then expected to travel to Villa La Certosa, the new 27-room villa of Mr Berlusconi, which boasts five swimming pools and a secret escape tunnel on an estate the size of Hyde Park in London. Reports that Luciano Pavarotti was being flown in for a concert attended by the Blairs to inaugurate the villa were yesterday dismissed by the singer's agent.

After spending two days in Sardinia, Mr and Mrs Blair are due to rejoin their four children at Villa Cusona, the 50-room Tuscan palace belonging to Prince Girolamo Strozzi, an aristocratic law professor who has hosted the Blairs at least twice before.

The hospitality of old friends is now thought to be preferred by Mr Blair, who two years ago found himself accused of "cheapening" his office when it emerged that the Egyptian government had paid for a holiday to a Red Sea resort. He made a donation to charity equivalent to the cost of the vacation.

The Conservative Party this weekend attacked the Prime Minister for enjoying a "lavish lifestyle" that few of the electorate could afford. Michael Howard, the Tory leader, is taking his holidays as a guest of television quiz show host Anne Robinson at her Tuscan villa.

Mr Blair's predecessors will have had less impressive holiday snaps. Harold Wilson famously spent his summer breaks at his holiday home in the Isles of Scilly while Clement Attlee stayed at a Weymouth boarding house. Margaret Thatcher could only be prised away from Downing Street for long enough to spend a week or two in Devon or Cornwall.

But pollsters and critics within his own party said that Mr Blair was unlikely to suffer for his sun-seeking habits, pointing out that increased security needs meant secluded mansions were an ideal choice. One leading polling organisation said: "Mr Blair has previously suffered a slight dip in his ratings during the summer but that's often due to other factors. The electorate seem to think there are more important things than the Prime Minister's holiday arrangements."

Others defended the Prime Minister's right to a summer break, if not his choice of host. Peter Kilfoyle, the former defence minister who has been critical of the Government for not doing enough to tackle poverty, said: "I think he is entitled to a holiday like the rest of us. But I think where he is staying indicates he has very definite social preferences."

POSTCARD FROM A PREMIER: A HOLIDAY HISTORY

Winston Churchill Miami Beach, Florida

Britain's wartime leader spent six weeks at the age of 71 gazing over the beachfront at the Miami Beach Surf Club. During the holiday with his wife, Clementine, he spent his time painting and reading. Two paintings, a landscape and scene of surfers, later sold for $25,000 (£14,000).

Clement Attlee Weymouth and north Wales

The author of Labour's post-war election victory spent his holidays in a Weymouth boarding house. Otherwise he spent his summers with his family in north Wales, reading or playing golf.

Anthony Eden Barbados/Jamaica

Mr Blair is not the only prime minister to have headed for the Caribbean in times of international instability. Mr Eden was criticised for holidaying at Ian Fleming's villa in Jamaica at the height of the Suez crisis in 1956. He later bought a holiday home in Barbados - Villa Nova - where he hosted the Queen.

Harold Wilson St Mary's, Isles of Scilly

The avuncular Labour leader spurned glamorous holiday locations for a bungalow in the Isles of Scilly which he bought for £200 with his wife. Such was his popularity on the island that an education centre has been named after him.

Margaret Thatcher Devon and Cornwall

The workaholic Iron Lady was notoriously difficult to persuade to leave the confines of Downing Street for a holiday. On those occasions when she did, the prime minister would retire to a holiday cottage, from where she was known to be fond of touring stately homes.

John Major Spain and Norfolk

The predecessor to Mr Blair exhibited a characteristically restrained choice in vacations. Mr Major normally spent his holidays at Los Praos, a chalet in the hills of Castille. After leaving Downing Street and splashing out on a safari in South Africa, he bought a holiday home in Norfolk.

Comments