Tony & Cherie's American Dream

With their £200,000 mortgage and his £87,000 pension, the Blairs have their future to think of. And in the land of opportunity, from Pebble Beach to Bohemia Grove, the movers are just a handshake away. By Francis Elliott
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Indy Politics

The limousines were valet-parked, the cocktails iced, the canapés made ready; in an elegant residence overlooking San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, the power elite of west coast America awaited the guest of honour.

Tony Blair was expected to arrive at the $4m home of George Shultz, the former US secretary of state, shortly before 8pm last night for a gathering of Californian power and influence.

The guest list included Phil Bronstein, media magnate and former husband of Sharon Stone, Charles Schwab, the mega-rich owner of the eponymous brokers' firm, plus assorted big-hitting politicians, Silicon Valley moguls and biotech billionaires.

Meanwhile, down the coast in Los Angeles, Mr Blair's first tentative step on to the lecture circuit had the organisers cooing over a sell-out event.

When Mr Blair addresses 2,000 people over lunch at the Bonaventure Hotel, he will know they each paid $80 (£43) for the privilege. The cash is to cover costs, say organisers. Mr Blair is not being paid - this time.

As the Monterey County Hotel recorded last week: "In a city where celebrity is taken for granted, one of the hottest tickets in town is for a politician."

Downing Street claims that Mr Blair's trip to California - the first by a serving Prime Minister - is to promote Britain's interests in a state that counts as one of the world's largest economies in its own right.

And indeed his itinerary takes in meetings with many firms competing with British innovators in fields such as stem-cell research and computing. But there is another - half-hidden - agenda to Mr Blair's end-of-term jaunt: the pursuit by both the high-flying Blairs of a job after Downing Street.

For the next few days Mr Blair will be meeting some of the big players in a country that adores him. Players such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Governor of California. For a leader no longer much loved on his own domestic battlefield, the sunshine state must feel like a political Valhalla.

"This is about Blair networking among some of the richest, most powerful people in the world so that he can either tap them up for directorships or get them to donate to a 'Blair Foundation' in the future," says a former minister who has accompanied the Prime Minister on previous US trips.

Mr Blair's plans for the future are beginning to form, say friends, who predict that there will, indeed, be some sort of charitable foundation in his name. The institution, almost certainly based in London, will promote those causes most close to his heart, they say. (It may not be an accident that Mr Blair is expected to meet senior Microsoft executives in the coming days - Bill Gates has led the way in pioneering a new form of global philanthropy.)

Although Mr Blair provoked speculation that he was hoping to become a future UN secretary general with remarks about the need to give that post more powers, close observers say it is wide of the mark. It is, indeed, hard to see how such a controversial figure could act as the world's most senior peace-maker. Heading a new body that merged the IMF and World Bank might be more plausible, were it not for the Prime Minister's weak grasp of detailed economic theory.

More prosaically, the Blairs need money. With allowances, his current income amounts to around £277,000. Once he leaves the Commons - and no one expects him to stand as an MP at the next election - he is entitled to an office allowance of up to £87,000 plus a decent pension.

But the Blairs' famously poor choice of property investments has saddled the family with an annual mortgage bill of around £200,000. The new house in Connaught Square is alone mortgaged to the tune of £3.5m.

When one adds such incidentals as the £18,000-a-year cost of childcare and helping the Blairs' older children through university, the urgency for cash becomes abundantly obvious.

It is assumed that Mr Blair's biggest retirement pay cheque will come from his memoirs. It was reported last week that the Prime Minister has shaken hands on a £4m deal for his diaries with a publishing firm owned by Rupert Murdoch. If true, the deal would trump the reported £3.5m Margaret Thatcher secured for her memoirs and the £500,000 John Major extracted for his.

Little wonder, one might say, that Mr Blair was quick to accept Mr Murdoch's invitation to address his News Corp annual conference this year. No 10 hardly bothers to deny that the timing of this weekend's US trip has been dictated by the invitation to speak at the media mogul's conference in exclusive Pebble Beach tomorrow.

Even Friday's White House press conference with George Bush was originally intended as little more than a courtesy call until events in the Middle East ensured it topped the world's news agenda.

The theme of today's speech to Murdoch's troops is "leadership", and Mr Blair is expected to deliver a highly personal assessment of more than a decade at the top of politics. The speech is bound to be taken as a further sign that he is preparing to quit the stage. It is also surely significant that he begins his swansong in front of the man who is arguably best placed to ensure he has continuing influence in the world.

But there is another - less well-publicised - gathering that is also likely to have informed the Prime Minister's travel plans, called Bohemia Grove. Seventy miles north of San Francisco, some of the US's most powerful men, gather for a two-week, male-only camp among the giant redwoods next to Russian River. Behind sentry-patrolled roadblocks, about 2,000 men network and party, protected by a fiercely enforced code of secrecy.

Overwhelmingly Republican in composition, "the Grove" is so influential that even Bill Clinton recently accepted an invitation to address campers.

Britain's former ambassador to the US, Sir Christopher Meyer, recently provided a fascinating glimpse between the redwoods in his controversial memoir, DC Confidential.

"It is considered a great honour to be invited. The members and their guests are among the most powerful and famous men in America: politicians, including ex-presidents, captains of industry, Hollywood notables and artists of all kinds. There is a smattering of foreign guests. The rules of the Grove forbid the conduct of business but it is hog heaven to a professional networker."

This year's camp began last weekend, and while Downing Street denies that Mr Blair will attend, just being in town at the same time as "the Grove" ensures that Mr Blair has timed his visit to perfection. Many of the guests at Mr Shultz's party last night will either be members or have attended as guests. Perhaps someone will give Mr Blair an invitation to a future camp when he has more time for such events.

For now Mr Blair remains a leader trying to promote national interests. Few would deny the sincerity of his interest in subjects such as gene research or computing advances. But as the PM nears the exit it becomes harder to counter suspicions that personal calculation is playing a part.

Take, for example, Mr Blair's host. Mr Shultz, in addition to being Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, is now a member of the board of Bechtel, the giant US engineering firm. The company is bidding for lucrative contracts to build facilities for the 2012 Olympics in London and is expected to be a key player in the nuclear decommissioning programme that will cost British tax-payers billions.

Mr Blair will also meet John Chambers, the chief executive of Cisco Systems, a company that stands to make a fortune from his ID card scheme, and Mervyn Jacobsen, the founder of an Australian biotechnology company that wants to expand into Europe.

No one is suggesting there is anything improper in these meetings: only that they may prove useful contacts for Mr Blair.

John Major reportedly told friends when he left politics in 2001 that he intended to keep his head down, work hard for five years and then retire. With a clutch of lucrative directorships and a few well-chosen lecture tours, he is estimated to have boosted his earnings to around £1m a year. That figure seems likely to be dwarfed by Mr Blair. As the response to his forthcoming address to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council makes clear, the signs could hardly be more encouraging. A spokesman simply said: "It was an immediate sell-out."

Additional reporting by Adeline Tan and Kitty Donaldson

Situations vacant: Dream jobs for him

Blair Foundation

A base for a globe-trotting role as world statesman, semi-official mediator (a sort of right-wing Jimmy Carter) and high-value lecturer. A foundation could attract a lot of US money for Blair's priorities: promoting democracy; slowing climate change; developing Africa.

UN Viceroy

In Palestine, Darfur or a humanitarian disaster yet to occur, he could be a UN viceroy, emulating Paddy Ashdown's role in Bosnia, and drawing on the negotiating skills that produced the Good Friday Agreement and that kept Nato together over Kosovo.

Best-Selling Author

A fluid stylist and persuasive writer, his memoirs would be a publisher's top trophy, but he may pull his punches on his rows with Gordon Brown, who might be prime minister by then.

Vicar

Or he could take to preaching in a more spiritual fashion, developing his interest in theology and inter-faith dialogue. Would give him more time at home with his six-year-old son. The only question is, which church would have him?

Dream jobs for her

European Court Judge

"I would love to be a judge," she once said, and she's on the first rung, as a Recorder. Her husband's job is assumed to have held her back; it might still be a problem after he steps down. Her expertise in human rights law makes her a natural for the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Unesco Ambassador

Her work for children's charities and promotion of women's rights around the world make for a strong CV for a job near the top of the global quangocracy, at the UN's educational, scientific and cultural body.

After-Dinner Speaker

Already commands controversially large sums of money for little in the way of revelations about life at No 10. Could develop this sideline - and even really spill the beans once she moves out.

Chat Show Host

Or she could change places on the daytime TV sofas, where she gave a skilfully bland performance on Richard and Judy, and turn gamekeeper for the media she hates.

Golden Handshakes

Yo, I'm Tony. And what can you do for me? Power players the PM will meet could help to smooth life after Downing St

THE POWERFUL ONES

Rupert Murdoch 75

Australian-born US citizen and the world's most powerful media mogul, Murdoch admired Blair's support for Bush over the Iraq war, which was backed by his titles worldwide. He may publish Blair's memoirs, and offer a seat on his board.

Arnold Schwarzenegger 49

The former actor and bodybuilder is Governor of California. The "Governator" shares Blair's concern about global warming, and through him America's richest state could lead the way.

George P Shultz 86

The economics expert was Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State. He once said: "Oh, you know. I am Secretary of State. My trips aren't successful. I just talk to people." Just talking to people is Blair's thing, and Shultz can get him in to see almost anyone.

John McCain 69

Senator for Arizona and favourite to be Republican presidential candidate in 2008. Supported Blair's pressure on Clinton to threaten military force in Kosovo. If he or Hillary Clinton gets to the White House, Blair will have unprecedented access to the next president.

THE INFLUENTIAL ONES

Henry Kissinger 83

German-born former US secretary of state, a prolific author and one of the biggest draws on the lecture circuit, who could pave the way for Blair, not least by opening up an address book to die for.

Mervyn Jacobson 64

The Australian founder and CEO of Genetic Technologies Ltd. Biotechnology is a complex subject in which Blair has long taken an interest, often with negative political consequences, as over GM food, but to which he may want to return.

Philip Bronstein 51

Media magnate and editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, California's largest daily newspaper. Former Pulitzer Prize finalist and former husband of Sharon Stone. Movers and shakers listen to him.

Lawrence Summers 51

The free-market economist recently resigned as president of Harvard University after his remarks about women's abilities. Friend of Gordon Brown and former World Bank chief economist, an obvious adviser on global poverty to the Blair Foundation.

THE RICH ONES

Bill Gates 50

Former chairman and co-founder of Microsoft Corporation and pioneer in global philanthropy, Gates, personally worth £27bn, now dedicates much of his time to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation set up to alleviate poverty and ignorance in the US and globally.

Charles "Chuck" Schwab 70

Founder of Charles Schwab and Co, a stockbroking and financial services firm that has now recovered from the bursting of the dotcom bubble six years ago. He has an estimated personal wealth of £1.7bn.

John T Chambers 57

The CEO of Cisco Systems is politically savvy and has donated to both Republicans and Democrats. Has a salary of £1m plus £100m in share options. Repeatedly voted most influential US CEO, he can make introductions in any US boardroom.

Bono 46

Irish frontman of rock-group U2 and campaigner for the cancellation of African debt. Personally worth more than £164m, he is a friend of the Labour Party. He has both musical and political credibility on an international stage.

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