Holiday reading: the playboys and business titans who make up the exclusive Club Blair

Alain Perrin runs a firm that owns Cartier and a chunk of British American Tobacco, and has his own chateau. Heather Tomlinson and Jo Dillon report on the latest recruit to the PM's social circle
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Indy Politics

Who could be a less likely friend of the Labour Party than Alain Dominique Perrin?

After all, he runs Richemont, which owns a clutch of top-notch jewellery and watch brands, including Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Piaget, Vacheron Constantin and Jaeger-LeCoultre. Richemont owns Purdey, a shotgun maker that has had royal appointment from every monarch since Queen Victoria.

It also owns Hackett, the upmarket men's retailer and a sponsor of Pony Club Polo and supplier of formal wear to the England rugby team, while a touch of glamour comes from Chloé, the design house that, until 2001, retained Stella McCartney. It also owns 18.5 per cent of British American Tobacco, and Richemont's finance director, Jan du Plessis, sits on the BAT board.

Yet it was M. Perrin's Chateau de Lagrezette in rural south-west France that became Tony Blair's holiday home on a family trip last year. It was his company's Hackett store in London's Sloane Street that took in Mr Blair's eldest son, Euan, for a work placement.

The hospitality runs both ways. M. Perrin, who also has a home in Knightsbridge, is a regular visitor at the Prime Minister's country residence, Chequers. The two men are said to have become close friends.

This is by no means the first time that eyebrows have been raised over the Blairs' holidays. Just last year, Cherie Blair took a half-term break with her mother and three children in Bermuda. The family's air fares, costing up to £3,000 each, were paid for by the Bermuda government and the group stayed in the governor's residence for a nominal fee of about £32 a day.

Last January, the Egyptian government subsidised a family trip to Sharm al-Sheikh and the pyramids at Giza, and the family have also been given holidays in Italy by Prince Girolamo Strozzi and the former paymaster general - forced to resign in the row over an undelcared home loan to Peter Mandelson - Geoffrey Robinson.

Critics and anti-smoking campaigners are also less than pleased at the Prime Minister's choice of friends - and not for the first time. Shortly after coming to office, his decision to accept a £1m donation from Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone and to invite him to a private tête-à-tête at Downing Street prompted the Blair administration's first scandal after it emerged that the Government had argued for the sport to be exempted from a tobacco advertising ban. The money had to be returned.

But Mr Blair, who as Prime Minister has tirelessly courted the rich and famous, shows no sign of cutting his ties with such associates. As well as being crucial to his attempts to recast Labour as the party of business, some of his connections with big businessmen have proved lucrative in terms of donations to the party.

In the case of M. Perrin, the connection helped oil the wheels of diplomacy. Mr Blair held talks last summer with his French counterpart, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, at M. Perrin's 15th-century chateau.

M. Perrin has been selling luxury goods since 1969, starting his career at Cartier. He went on to become chairman. Cartier's heritage includes the private commission of 22 tiaras ordered for Edward VII's 1909 coronation but under M. Perrin it became one of the most famous watch and luxury goods brands in the world.

M. Perrin fostered a rivalry with Rolex, and the mere mention of the competitor's firm once prompted him to throw a few punches to the air.

At the time, Cartier was a subsidiary of Vendome, owned by the South African Rupert family, once described as "secretive as a Swiss bank".

As chairman of Cartier, he moved the company to a modernist glass building, designed by Jean Nouvel, in the Montparnasse area of Paris, which was also home to an art gallery.

M. Perrin became part of Richemont in 1997 when the Swiss group bought out Vendome, marrying it with the cigarette firm Rothmans, which includes the upmarket brand Dunhill and Peter Stuyvesant. M. Perrin became chief executive of Richemont in 2001. However, he will retire this October when he reaches his 61st birthday.

He said it is to "allow myself more time for my personal life and my many other interests, including, of course, the production of wine at my estate, Chateau Lagrezette in Cahors". According to wine experts, M. Perrin has spared no expense in bringing the chateau up to the top wine producing standard of the region, and the wine is described as "voluptuous though well structured". However, the announcement was made two months after the company gave a warning that its profits would be down 40 per cent on last year.

Johann Rupert, already the chairman of Richemont, will take over M. Perrin's role. The Rupert family were the original owners of Rothmans and still own a large shareholding in Richemont.

In 1999, the Ruperts sold Rothmans to BAT, the world's second-largest tobacco company. As a result of that deal, Richemont owns 18.5 per cent of BAT.

BAT, despite the opposition that it attracts among politicians, has also fostered links with political parties and politicians.

In 1998, it was one of a number of companies that paid a £100 fee to attend seminars on how Labour Party policy was made, and in 2001 the company asked shareholders to sanction £200,000 for political donations under the new Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. The firm also funds the cross-party pro-single currency pressure group Britain in Europe.

As for M. Perrin, he's well used to rubbing shoulders with the political classes. Last April, when he was made an Officer of the Legion of Honour, the ceremony was attended by four ex-ministers and two former French prime ministers, along with a smattering of movie actors.