Leaders need holidays, but Mr Blair has failed to grasp the essence of leadership

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No one should expect the Prime Minister to break off his holiday and return home for just any disaster, natural or man-made. Were this to be a requirement of the job, the occupant of 10 Downing Street would never be in a position to enjoy a well-deserved break at all. He might as well stay at home.

No one should expect the Prime Minister to break off his holiday and return home for just any disaster, natural or man-made. Were this to be a requirement of the job, the occupant of 10 Downing Street would never be in a position to enjoy a well-deserved break at all. He might as well stay at home.

It is probably also true, as the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said that there was nothing the Prime Minister could have done about the tsunami catastrophe that was not already being done. Mr Straw said that he had returned from his holiday, as had the Deputy Prime Minister, as had the International Development Secretary - which was as it should be. What purpose would be served by the Prime Minister's return?

On the purely practical level, Mr Straw was right. There was nothing the Prime Minister could have done. A prime minister is not a fund-raiser; he is not an aid co-ordinator, not a doctor or a priest who might feel obliged to offer his services. And there is something self-centred and mawkish about national leaders who rush off to disaster zones to show their "compassionate side" or to run up the national flag. For Mr Blair to have interrupted his holiday would have served no practical purpose at all.

Being Prime Minister in the communications age, however, is about far more than practicality; it is also about what is appropriate and what reflects well on Britain. And here Mr Blair was either mistaken or poorly advised. There is at very least a dissonance in the imagined picture of the Prime Minister taking his ease in Egypt, amid tropical scenery not unlike that laid waste on other shores, at a time when thousands - including several dozen Britons - have perished; a time when millions have lost homes and livelihoods; a time when the people of this country have rallied to an aid effort probably unprecedented in scale.

Within a day of the Disaster Emergencies Committee launching its appeal, the Government's offering (now again revised upwards from the paltry £1m it first thought of) had been eclipsed. From the Queen to football clubs to commercial concerns and pensioners, the response has been extraordinary. In this strange downtime between Christmas and New Year, Royal Britain, working Britain, retired Britain, sporting Britain, media Britain and Britain plc are all engaged. Should the Prime Minister really still be relaxing by the pool?

Mr Blair did issue a statement in which he spoke of the world "united in sorrow" and promised that Britain stood ready to "help in any way we can". But with other leaders returning to their desks, dispatching ministers and personally associating themselves with the aid operation, our own government's efforts look shamefully half-hearted. Even the famed holiday-hermit, George Bush, managed a personal appearance to set out in vigorous terms what assistance the United States was contributing. Mr Bush understood the chance this disaster afforded for him to present another, more generous, face of America.

Even quicker to appreciate the extent and import of the disaster, was Mr Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton. Speaking to the BBC a mere 36 hours after the tsunami struck, Mr Clinton said he had looked at a map and realised at once how far-reaching the consequences could be. Drawing on his experience of visiting disaster zones in India and Turkey, he proposed ways in which help could be most effectively organised. Ever the instinctive politician, he noted that disasters could also contain seeds of opportunity.

Things are easier for elder statesmen, of course. Broaching big ideas is arguably what they are there for. A more imaginative or far-sighted leader than Mr Blair, however, might have grasped early on that by projecting Britain as a leading donor and organiser of aid to the ravaged regions - many of which are in the Commonwealth - he could also advance his own big idea: his plan to use Britain's presidency of the G8 next year to tackle global poverty. By staying on holiday, Mr Blair has missed that opportunity.

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