Money matters

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The Independent Online

When the Prime Minister travels to Washington next week on the next stage of his pre-G8 summit tour, he will be preceded in the US capital by his wife, Cherie. Mrs Blair will be fulfilling a speaking engagement at the city's Kennedy Center, where she will deliver an address billed as the inside account of the "First Lady of Downing Street". It is an all-ticket affair and the tickets, it is said, have sold out.

When the Prime Minister travels to Washington next week on the next stage of his pre-G8 summit tour, he will be preceded in the US capital by his wife, Cherie. Mrs Blair will be fulfilling a speaking engagement at the city's Kennedy Center, where she will deliver an address billed as the inside account of the "First Lady of Downing Street". It is an all-ticket affair and the tickets, it is said, have sold out.

So far, so good. There is no reason why the Prime Minister's wife should not speak to a paying audience. The crucial question is what happens to the proceeds. And this is where Mrs Blair's engagement slips over into the unacceptable. Her "inside account" of life at Downing Street will earn her a handsome fee.

If the proceeds - all the proceeds - were destined for a charity, and this was clearly stated in advance, we would have no objection. But there is no doubt at all that, with this engagement, a good portion of the money, if not all, is going to Mrs Blair herself. She is thus profiting, directly from her status as the Prime Minister's wife. She is using her married name. She is not speaking in her professional capacity as an employment rights lawyer. She is speaking about Downing Street. And that is why people are prepared to pay to hear her.

There is no ambiguity here. It is no good for Downing Street to skirt the issue by saying, as it has done, that this is a private engagement and that she will be travelling "independently" from the Prime Minister. Maybe she will, but that is not the point. The point is that, not for the first time, Mrs Blair is using her official position for personal gain.

This trip is all too reminiscent of her speaking tour to Australia and New Zealand earlier this year, when ticket sales raised money only partly for charity, but also for the intermediaries and for Mrs Blair. It also seems disturbingly of a piece with other money-related episodes in Mrs Blair's life that have found their way into the public domain.

If the Prime Minister or any other minister of the Crown were to make money from commercial activities related to his job, he would be breaking the rules. There is no regulation barring ministers' spouses or other family members from so doing. Technically, therefore, Mrs Blair is violating no rules.

She has, however, ridden a coach and horses through the code of unwritten rules that define dignity and propriety. The reason why there is no written rule to break is surely because, in the past, no British First Lady would ever have dreamt of enriching herself in such a way. Mrs Blair's unfortunate legacy to Downing Street might be the hitherto unnecessary code of conduct befitting to spouses.

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