The odd couple - Blair's unlikely alliance with the most powerful man in Italy

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Indy Politics

Imagine that Tony Blair enjoyed a near-monopoly among the ITV companies, that his acolytes dominated the BBC's board, that he controlled two magazines and that his family owned a national newspaper. Imagine that he also owned Newcastle United, had advertising, food, insurance and construction interests, and furthermore that he was immune from prosecution.

It sounds far-fetched, but that is the level of power wielded by Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister and the country's richest man, whose vast business and media empire includes AC Milan.

At a time when Mr Blair faces an increasingly critical British media, the Prime Minister can only look enviously towards Rome. Instead of relying threats and sweeteners, Mr Blair would enjoy more direct control. "It would make life a lot easier," a Blair aide quipped.

Mr Berlusconi is a hate figure among Labour activists and the trade unions, who resent the close working relationship that Mr Blair forged with him after he won power in Italy in 2001. The two leaders had a mutual interest in forming their unlikely partnership. For Mr Berlusconi, it provided cover and respectability when he was anxious not to be tarred with an extremist brush. For Mr Blair, it provided a useful ally in the European Union, where tactical alliances are vital.

When their alliance was forged, Europe was dominated by centre-left governments but now the centre-right is in the ascendancy, so Mr Blair's strategy looks clever. He is on even closer terms with Jose Maria Aznar, the conservative Prime Minister of Spain.

Despite their party political differences, there is no sign that Mr Blair does business with Mr Berlusconi through gritted teeth. Yesterday, Downing Street deliberately kept out of the row over the Italian premier's latest diplomatic gaffe. "This is a matter for the two parties involved; we don't want to interfere," said Mr Blair's official spokesman.

There is a sneaking admiration in the Blair circle for Mr Berlusconi's no-nonsense style and toughness in standing up to internal party criticism. The two leaders share an admiration of the way Margaret Thatcher put herself above her party and appealed directly to voters.

Mr Blair was first linked with Mr Berlusconi when he was Italy's opposition leader in 1998. Rupert Murdoch wanted to buy his Mediaset TV network for £4bn, and Mr Blair was reported to have asked Romano Prodi, who was Italy's Prime Minister, whether his government would allow it to fall into foreign hands. Mr Blair denied doing any special favours.

Mr Berlusconi likes talking of his "friend Tony". He said last year: "Tony told me that he was completely serene about criticisms over his relationship with me."

Mr Blair is less warm about the relationship in public, knowing that his decision to join forces with Mr Berlusconi to dilute EU plans for more workers' rights has infuriated the unions.

Responding to union criticism last year, Mr Blair said: "I work with leaders from right around the world, whatever their political party or their government. I do not choose presidents or prime ministers."