Blair isolated on Iraq conflict as Berlusconi bows out

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The Independent Online

The defeat of Silvio Berlusconi has left Tony Blair isolated in Europe as the last political leader supporting the war in Iraq.

Mr Berlusconi had been the only ally of Mr Blair and President George Bush in Europe after Jose Maria Aznar, the Spanish prime minister, was defeated in the aftermath of the Madrid bombings in March 2004. Mr Blair is likely to put a brave face on the defeat, although many will see it as a further nail in his own political coffin. However, he knows Mr Berlusconi's successor Romano Prodi from his time as the European Commission president.

The close relationship between Mr Blair and the Italian media mogul has mystified Labour MPs, who privately say the Blairs were dazzled by wealth. The election result is also likely to bring the curtain down on the free holidays the Blairs enjoyed at Mr Berlusconi's villa in Sardinia.

The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera dubbed the Blairs "The Sultans of Bling" after Mr Blair declared receiving watches, earrings, a necklace, a ring and a bracelet from Mr Berlusconi.

However, it was David Mills, husband of the cabinet minister Tessa Jowell and a corporate lawyer who acted for Mr Berlusconi, who has caused Mr Blair most trouble. Mr Mills is still facing the possibility of charges with Mr Berlusconi over corruption, and Ms Jowell announced that she was separating from her husband as the calls for her resignation mounted.

Ms Jowell, one of Mr Blair's closest allies in the Cabinet, survived, but Mr Blair became mired with the sleaze allegations surrounding Mr Mills and Mr Berlusconi's financial deals.

For Mr Mills, who is accused of accepting a £350,000 bribe from the outgoing Italian Prime Minister, Mr Berlusconi's defeat will provide little comfort.

A judge is due to open a hearing in Milan in June to decide whether the case brought by prosecutors should proceed to trial. It is alleged that the British lawyer was paid in exchange for providing favourable testimony during two previous trials into Mr Berlusconi's business dealings. Both men deny the charges.

Much of Mr Berlusconi's time in office was spent passing laws limiting the time frame in which he could be prosecuted after an alleged offence to 10 years. There were suggestions last night, however, that a new government might seek to change the statute of limitations to enable the trial to reach a conclusion.

Mr Berlusconi and Mr Mills claim to have documents that prove the £350,000 was paid to Mr Mills by another client, Diego Attanasio, a Neapolitan shipowner. However, Mr Attanasio has said he that he was in prison at the time the money was paid.