Three-villas Blair is a man without shame

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Mr Tony Blair and his family seem to be having a nice holiday, though I wondered rather about whether the clearly snatched picture of him drinking a glass of beer and his wife sunning herself conformed to the newspapers' code of practice: "The use of long lens photography to take pictures of people in private places without their consent is unacceptable. Note - Private places are public or private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy."

However, Mr and Mrs Blair have, over the years, proved themselves adept - even ruthless - in protecting their privacy and that of their nearest and dearest. This column has other preoccupations. One of them is why the Prime Minister finds it so difficult to fork out for a holiday of his own.

Even Winston Churchill - in the last years of his life a champion freeloader - was modest by comparison. He confined himself to Aristotle Onassis's yacht and to holidays in the South of France at his literary agent's house. His reasonable ambition, which, alas, he never realised, was to have a small villa of his own in the same part of the world.

Mr Blair is a firm believer in other people's villas. This year he is not just staying in one of them, as he has done in the past, or even in two, as he has also done, but in three, which is a record. All this and Chequers too, where, if he wanted to, he could stay throughout the summer in country-house comfort, supplementing it with a few weeks in foreign parts financed by his prime-ministerial salary and by his wife's earnings at the Bar.

Mr Blair evidently has a deep moral sense because he is always telling us about it himself. Indeed, his favourite justification for any action, whether in Iraq or anywhere else, is that at the time he sincerely believed he was doing the right thing. But what he clearly lacks is, as I have remarked before, any sense of shame, as that phrase is commonly understood. He is a completely shameless man.

There is, however, another way of looking at three-villas Blair. He knows perfectly well that what he is doing is wrong; or, if it is not wrong in the sense that it has to be confessed (assuming he has reached that stage in his progress towards the Church of Rome), he knows that it is something which attracts the disapproval of quite reasonable people, not normally in the habit of being unnecessarily censorious. Knowing this, he still goes on, just to show them, just to show who is boss. And if anything goes wrong, as it always can do, why, he can always talk his way out of trouble, partly through the application of his famous charm, and partly through his possession of a thumping majority. As Walter Bagehot once remarked: "There is no arguing with the brute force of a majority."

The Duke of Wellington dismissed the threat of the Faria Alam of her day with the words: "Publish and be damned." Mr Blair's motto is: "Appoint and be damned." There were two examples before he went off on his holidays. One was of Mr John Scarlett to head MI6. The other was of Mr Peter Mandelson to be a European commissioner. Both appointments could, I think, be justified, just about.

Mr Scarlett had done his stint at the memo-face. It was a straight competition between him and someone else who had been hewing the memos just as energetically for most of his life. As for Mr Mandelson, he was long ago spoken of as a possible commissioner. In addition, it could be argued that he had been harshly treated by Mr Blair and by Mr Alastair Campbell not only in his second resignation but in his first one as well: for, as I wrote at the time, it is not an indictable offence or, indeed, a crime of any kind to borrow £373,000 from a colleague.

It is possible that Mr Blair thought he had his own debts to repay both to Mr Mandelson and to Mr Scarlett. At the same time he must have realised that many reasonable people objected to both appointments. If Mr Blair had been in a really defiant mood, he would have reappointed Mr Mandelson to the Cabinet. His colleagues objected to this course. Mr Blair was as defiant as he could afford to be. "I'll show 'em" had its limits after all.

Mr Michael Howard is freeloading too, even if on a smaller scale, but he is showing nothing like Mr Blair's defiance, hardly enough to say "boo" to a pussy cat. Leading any opposition is a terrible job; leading a Conservative opposition is even worse than leading Labour; but leading this particular Conservative opposition must be the worst job since the war. By comparison, Alec Douglas-Home's period in 1964-65 was a bed of flowers.

To some extent Mr Howard has brought his troubles on himself. To say that he would have voted against the resolution authorising the Iraq war if he had known then what he knows now but that he nevertheless supports the war: this may be a pleasing paradox after a good dinner at the Inner Temple, though I doubt even that. To the plain people of Folkestone, or even of Llanelli, it is gobbledegook. But the Conservatives would still have come third in the by- elections even if Mr Howard had said nothing at all on these lines. Nor would he have secured a debating triumph over the slippery Mr Blair if he had refrained from making his elusive point.

What is surprising to the external observer is how despondent the Conservatives are. I have seen three electoral upsets - most pertinently, Edward Heath's victory in 1970, Harold Wilson's in February 1974 and John Major's in 1992 - and four if you include Wilson's failure to crush Douglas-Home in 1964. A year before that last date, at the troubled Tory conference in Blackpool, Iain Macleod brought what were then a very different audience to their feet with a stirring instruction to lift up their hearts because they were going to win. Much to everyone's surprise, they very nearly did. It is sad for Mr Howard that there is no one remotely like Macleod available to make such a speech today.

I am off for a few weeks and shall be back, I hope, for what is now called the Liberal Democrat Conference and I still think of as the Liberal Assembly. The historic function of this gathering was to act as a gentle reintroduction to the political year. It used to serve up at least one Very Silly Session, sometimes more, so providing us with some much-needed laughs. To be fair to the party, it has gallantly tried to maintain this happy tradition. But no doubt some busybody has told - or will shortly tell - Mr Charles Kennedy, who has had a good season, that at this of all times it is necessary to behave as a serious political organisation, with all that implies. I foresee grim times ahead.